Some autistic people have always had good eye contact and never had to “learn” or “practice” it.
As a spectrum disorder, autism doesn’t present the same in every affected individual. This includes comfort levels with eye contact.
There is no data on what percentage of autistic people have naturally good eye contact that they never had to learn.
I attended an autism celebration event at a popular café and had the pleasure of being introduced to a 57-year-old man, Jeff, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder only a few years prior.
What I immediately noticed about Jeff, as we began chatting opposite each other at a rather narrow table, was his excellent eye contact.
However, I also considered two possibilities:
- He was “faking” it by looking at my nasal bridge or forehead.
- Or, he indeed was maintaining direct eye contact – but at one point in his life struggled with this and had to work hard to “learn” it.
I was diagnosed with ASD myself in the spring of 2022, and have developed something of a special interest in eye contact.
So I asked Jeff about his eye contact: was he looking directly into my eyes? He said yes. I noted nothing unusual about his gaze. It appeared typical.
I also had noticed, prior to sitting down with him, his teen son’s eye contact.
As I had approached the area, Jeff’s son had been handling their dog. In the process of handing the leash over to his father, the teen glanced straight at my eyes – like any teen would in that moment, seeing a new person with his father.
The boy held the contact for a moment – then naturally (not aversively) shifted his eyes to his father while managing the dog.
Regarding his own eye contact, Jeff said that he had never struggled with it; he never had to “work on it” or felt uncomfortable with it. He also confirmed that his son had always had good eye contact.
I then asked Jeff if he’d like to share his eye contact experiences with me for an article I’d like to write, and he was enthusiastic.
I’ve read every thread on eye contact in autismforums.com, wrongplanet.net and quora.com.
That means HUNDREDS of comments. There are a variety of reasons autistic people struggle with eye contact.
This includes not knowing “how much” to do it – as in, when to break it while in a conversation, for how long to maintain the break and when to return gaze.
On the other hand, some autistic people report that direct gaze for even one second is so uncomfortable that they avoid it altogether.
This discomfort may be a feeling of looking into a bright light; pressure in the head; or a sensation that the other person is reading their most private thoughts.
Others say it’s too intimate, intrusive or invasive.
At least a few commented that once they make eye contact, they don’t know when to look away and end up staring, fearing this creeps people out.
What seems to be the No. 1 reason, though, is that it distracts from paying attention to the conversation: “I can look or I can listen. Pick one.”
Below are my questions and Jeff’s answers.
What prompted the pursuit of an ASD evaluation?
I pursued an evaluation because it was recommended to me. I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2019, and in Aug of 2021 my psychiatrist accidentally let her license lapse.
I needed to find a new psychiatrist to refill my medications. The new psychiatrist recommended a full neuropsych evaluation.
I also read an article that made me wonder if I possibly had Autism, as I could relate to some of the information in the article.
Plus, my son Tanner had a late diagnosis of Autism in August of 2020, it made me wonder if I possibly had Autism, as we are very similar.
Have you ever, even in childhood, had any issue with eye contact?
I’ve never had any issues with eye contact. It was never brought to my attention, and I don’t ever recall being uncomfortable or making anyone uncomfortable with my eye contact.
Have you ever been aware that when you’re sustaining eye contact during conversation, the eye contact is a distraction?
If eye contact has been sustained for too long it feels like I’m staring at; or the person I’m having a conversation with stares at me too long; it does make me feel awkward.
Has eye contact ever felt mechanical or unnatural?
While holding eye contact do you find that you frequently have to think about it to “get it right”?
No, it is natural for me.
Why do you hold eye contact in conversations as the listener?
I don’t recall that I have ever had to tell myself to make eye contact. It is just something that I have always done.
I do know that I feel if someone is making eye contact with me, I feel they are paying attention to me, so I do the same in return.
Are you uncomfortable with accidental eye contact? What I mean is non-intentionally meeting someone’s eyes — a person you had no intention of speaking to, or who’s not speaking to you.
It depends on the context. An example is if I’m looking for someone in a crowded place, I will inadvertently make eye contact with lots of people that I’m not intending to look at.
This doesn’t bother me because I believe that I’m focused on trying to find the person I’m looking for. There is nothing socially unacceptable for looking for someone.
Jeff is a clinical data systems administrator for Cochlear Americas, a hearing implant manufacturer.
Update on Jeff’s 14-Year-Old Autistic Son and Eye Contact
I ran into Jeff’s wife at a major autism fair; she was with their son and encouraged him to join me at the table I was seated at, then she left.
The teen has a deep special interest in video games, and at 14, has already made $200 from games he’s created.
He was very eager to talk all about video games and show me how different ones worked via his phone.
His “tutorial” to me on video games was quite lengthy, and every so often I asked him questions. I must say, he had excellent eye contact.
My eyes were on his phone quite a bit as he demonstrated many activities, and I could clearly see in my peripheral vision that he periodically looked at me while talking.
Whenever I looked back at him, his eyes were on mine. It seemed that the boy just intuitively knew how to “do” eye contact. It seemed very natural for him.
Finally I asked him about it. He confirmed that he’d never had a problem with it, and in fact, an ASD evaluator hadn’t wanted to give him the diagnosis because of his eye contact!
Ultimately, he was diagnoed with Level 1 autism at age 12.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness 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 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.