Two articulate autistic women explain in detail what their unique challenges with eye contact are. It isn’t about bashfulness or dislike of people.
According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, “abnormal eye contact” (rather than “avoidance of”) is listed as an example of “Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction.”
Eye contact is basically two-pronged: when one is the listener, and when one is the speaker. This distinction is important for many autistic men and women.
Ashley Lauren Spencer, who’s autistic, is the owner of The Autistic Innovator, an online store for autistic adults and author of Resources for Autistic Adults: Volume 1.
Spencer reports that she wasn’t too aware of her autistic traits in childhood, “since back then, autism was for boys only.” But she adds, “I don’t think I’ve ever looked people in the eye while talking.”
Maintaining eye contact while talking in an ongoing way is challenging for many autistic people.
Spencer explains, “Few years ago I worked as a leasing agent at an apartment complex. When I was ‘video shopped’ they [supervisors] could see I was making no eye contact at all with the person I was touring.
“In the video, I didn’t look them in the eye once and had a straight-faced expression.
“From that point on, I’d spend the entire ‘tour’ thinking ‘Make eye contact. Smile. Make eye contact. Smile.’ It was incredibly draining.”
Eye contact is possible, but occurs on a conscious level. In neurotypical people, eye contact while giving a tour or otherwise explaining something at length occurs subconsciously or instinctively.
Because in autists it occurs consciously, this uses up cognitive bandwidth.
“When I’m the listener it gets really hard to pay attention to what they are saying because it distracts me,” Spencer says, referring to holding eye contact.
“When I talk to them, I will look anywhere but at the person I’m talking to. It’s super hard for me to look someone in the eye while I’m talking, so I just don’t do it. It’s not worth the effort it takes.”
This isn’t about thinking that the other person isn’t worth sustaining eye contact with.
It’s about the ability to focus on the conversation while mental energy is being diverted to the conscious effort of eye contact.
“When having to make eye contact with people, it feels very forced and mechanical, like, ‘People like it when you make eye contact, so I will look them in the eye.’ I did the same thing with smiling too when working those jobs pre-covid.”
What about when Spencer is the listener?
“It’s hard to pay attention to what someone is saying if they’re looking at me directly the entire time.
“I start repeating in my head, ‘Make eye contact. Make eye contact,’ and completely miss what they are saying. It’s best to listen to people while I’m doing things, like eating for example. I can eat, look at my food, look back at them, and switch my gaze around and become much more able to give them my full attention when I can listen while looking away.
“If people are talking to me and start looking me directly in the eye while they are talking, I get uncomfortable and glance away.
“I’m not entirely sure how to describe the uncomfortable feeling.
“When people look around the room and occasionally look at me, I can focus on what they are saying and listen to every word better.”
Danielle Sullivan is an autistic mother to two neurodivergent children, and is a neurodiversity life coach and founder of The Neurodiverging Podcast.
Sullivan doesn’t make eye contact much. She explains, “First, I do have trouble knowing how much eye contact is ‘too much,’ and avoiding eyes means I don’t have to always be calibrating eye contact and using energy there.
“Second, I can’t make prolonged eye contact and also think; eye contact takes too much concentration on my part.
“And third, I have auditory processing disorder (as do many autistics!), and I rely heavily on lip-reading, which I can’t do if I need to be looking at someone’s eyes.”
In Western society, holding eye contact as the listener means—or at least suggests—that the listener is paying attention.
The irony is that for some autists, holding eye contact—though flattering to the neurotypical speaker—means a reduced ability to pay attention.
There are two incoming channels of information: the speaker’s words and the speaker’s eyes. For some autists, two active channels are too much.
But the NT speaker wants to feel they’re being listened to. Sullivan explains, “I think that I practice other ways of showing someone that I’m listening besides eye contact, which mitigates this specific concern for me.
“This can be body language, like leaning into them, nodding, responding verbally and using reflective listening (like saying something like ‘I’m hearing that… is that right?’).
“This can cue the speaker that I was listening and give them evidence that I heard what they said and gave it due attention.
“I also often watch lips when I’m listening, because of my auditory processing issues, which I suppose could help the speaker know I’m listening because I’m looking at their face.”
One might wonder if the over-stimulation of locking eyes while trying to pay attention exists for briefer, back-and-forth interactions.
Sullivan says that often, but not always, she avoids a direct gaze even for brief exchanges.
“Even if I am avoiding eye contact, I’m probably still looking at their mouth or ‘faking’ by looking between their eyes to show my attention.”
You might be wondering, If they can look between the eyes, why not just go all the way and look directly into the eyes? After all, direct eye contact is so very close by to the nasal bridge; does it really make a difference?
Yes, it does. Eyes emit sensory information, while nasal bridges do not. Eyes have a distracting “life” to them, while the skin on the nose between them does not. Pupils dilate, eyelids and brows move; but the nasal bridge remains bland and fixed in place.
Sullivan continues, “Or, I’ll look away briefly to think and then look back toward their face when I’m ready to speak. I think this behavior is relatively common among neurotypicals as well, though.
“I do often disclose my autism, in part because I’m often speaking and listening to other neurodivergent people.
“In other circumstances where I don’t feel it’s safe to disclose, I will still often say I have ‘hearing problems,’ which is technically true and encourages people to be a little more flexible when I don’t make as much eye contact as they may expect.”
Neurotypicals often associate gaze avoidance with deception or dishonesty. However, many conversations in day-to-day life are not steeped in the importance of truthfulness.
What seems to be the more prominent illusion that gaze aversion creates is that of shyness, lack of confidence or skittishness.
In fact, when criminals scope faces for potential victims (such as a mugging on a subway), those who avoid eye contact may end up at the top of their list for targets.
Sullivan explains, “There are lots of other ways to show confidence apart from eye contact, like standing tall and speaking calmly and assertively, for example. I lived alone in Philadelphia for almost a decade and never had a problem.
“I give the illusion of eye contact, certainly. Depending on my general state of being, I might give authentic eye contact, or I might just look between the eyes or at their nose.
“I agree that their perception of me as giving eye contact is an important piece of being read as serious and in-control in a case like this.
“Overall, I find that the people who insist on eye contact over good conversation and communication are often not particularly emotionally intelligent themselves, and may even be trying to use overwhelming eye contact to show their own dominance or to claim respect from me (though this may not be conscious on their part).
“Relaxing eye contact on my end and using other techniques, like listening to body language, can encourage them to relax and become more willing to collaborate with me instead.”
No Two Autistic People Are the Same
There’s a popular saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
Autists are just as variegated as are neurotypicals. Some have good eye contact, while others avoid it altogether. Some even overdo it and are told they stare too much or look angry. This continuum is quite evident in threads such as on Quora.com.
If you meet someone who won’t give you eye contact, remind yourself that ears don’t function better in the presence of eye contact. This is why blind people do perfectly fine in conversations.
The Autistic Innovator was founded by Ashley Lauren Spencer. Ashley Lauren Spencer is an autistic entrepreneur and author. Her focus is encouraging and providing resources for autistic adults, so we can build our best and most authentic life.
Danielle Sullivan’s mission is to help neurodivergent individuals find the resources they need to live better lives, and to further disability awareness and social justice efforts to improve all of our lives as part of the larger world community.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In spring 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.