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 at 55.

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, as had a woman I’d chatted with earlier, whom I initially believed was giving me a persistently direct gaze. I complimented on her “good eye contact,” and she said that the entire time she’d been looking at something on the wall behind me, or sometimes at my nasal bridge.
  • Or, Jeff 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. I’ve been to three autism events so far and just can’t help myself when it comes to asking others about their 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 wasn’t flitty or intense. It appeared natural – like any neurotypical person’s gaze.

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 – like any neurotypical would under the circumstances – 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. Through email I asked him very specific questions about his eye contact.

But first, I want to point out that eye contact is a heavy issue in the autism community.

Many autistic people struggle in some way with eye contact. This is easily confirmed by typing “eye contact” into the search function of the two leading autism online communities: wrongplanet.net and autismforums.com.

I’ve read every thread, every response. 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.

Some say there’s a five-second rule: Break it five seconds into the conversation, then return it, then count to five again, etc. 

Others have something like a three-two rule: break after three seconds, return after two, etc. All of this occurs consciously, distracting the autist from the conversation.

Many 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.

Some say it invokes anxiety or is intimidating. A few also said it makes them think that the other person might think they’re flirting. 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: a sensory overload, as in: “I can look or I can listen. Pick one.”

Autistic Man Has Always Had Good Eye Contact

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?

No.

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.

As for my, the author’s, eye contact: Good eye contact came with my autism.  

Long-held eye contact, however, while I’m listening to someone looking right at me, feels more mechanical than instinctive — like a formality — and can be a little distracting. 

When I’m talking about something that requires deep thought, I prefer to look away quite a bit rather than hold eye contact, as this allows for better focus.

In overall summary, then, as an autistic person, I have no difficulty with casual and common eye contact when dealing with people — and I never did. It’s a stereotype that “all” autistic people avoid eye contact or had to “work at it.”

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. 

 

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Top image: Mirza Babic/Unsplash unsplash.com/photos/enfTgcQICSg