Not all autistic people hate looking into someone’s eyes. Eye contact is crucial for me, but as an emitter of information rather than as a receiver.

I have a clinical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, received in spring of 2022. 

My autism was completely missed in childhood because back then, this neurotype was thought to exist primarily in boys — and in a more severe presentation such as lack of verbal communication and inability to attend a mainstream school.

I never had a problem making eye contact with my parents whenever we had conversations. But I do recall that, on several occasions while my mother was admonishing me, she said, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” And I did.

I have no recollection of siblings, teachers or classmates reporting that I averted their gaze.

But as we get older, eye contact becomes more relevant. People use it more, and people expect it more.

We are put in positions in which we must be silent for extended periods while listening to explanations, instructions or stories – told by someone who’s directly facing us one-on-one.

And in the adult world, we find ourselves often needing to approach strangers for some kind of assistance (retail clerks, bank tellers, medical staff, car dealership staff, repairmen, service techs, servers, furniture delivery personnel, the list goes on and on).

In alignment with this, eye contact among neurotypicals naturally occurs far more frequently than in autistics.

Why I Make Eye Contact Despite Autism

Though eye contact “abnormalities” are an example of difficulties with nonverbal communication, the avoidance of eye contact is not a diagnostic criterion for ASD.

Though the absence of eye contact raises red flags, the presence of it does NOT rule out autism.

In no particular order, here’s why I make eye contact:

#1     To Assert Authority or Show Disdain

This covers a wide range of scenarios. For example, alerting a neighbor that their dog barks all day. People will look at my eyes. I use them to convey information.

Neurotypicals feel a great need to look into a pair of eyes. Hence, I use my eyes to deliver information to them — along with my words, tone of voice and body language.

An NT won’d take me seriously or be moved as much to mitigate a problem if I’m looking down or otherwise away from their eyes.

If I avoided eye contact when telling a neighbor I could hear their thumping music through my walls, it’d make them think I was skittish – and they’d then think they could continue getting away with the infraction.

Eye contact asserts my “authority” or unwillingness to tolerate a problem, letting  them know I mean business.

Eye contact lets service people know that:

  • I expect excellent service.
  • I’m not wishy-washy or indecisive.
  • Providers won’t get away with shoddy service.
  • I know what I want and expect upfront communicaiton. 

If I’m passing a man at night on an obscure sidewalk, he’ll get my eye contact – briefly, to let him know I’m alert and aware and know what he looks like, and that I’m not fearful or submissive-looking.

I’ve studied martial arts at several schools, and every instructor emphasized the importance of eye contact when confronted with a perceived threat.

Eye contact tells the predator that you’re ready to defend yourself.

Though eye contact is strongly discouraged if we encounter a bear, we have to realize that humans aren’t bears.

In fact, wildlife experts say we should make eye contact if we encounter a mountain lion (cougar) on a hike.

#2     To Be Convincing

If I want to have any chance of winning an argument, eye contact is crucial. This doesn’t mean I hold it nonstop without any break.

Breaks will come naturally if I’m moving around, especially if I’m standing and very especially if I’m moving my arms and hands.

But the recipient will definitely know what direct eye contact with me looks like. I will maintain it much more while they’re the one speaking.

When it’s my turn to explain, I often have to break it within 10 seconds to maintain my focus, holding my gaze off to the side somewhere as I’m still talking. I then remind myself to return my gaze to their eyes.

This requires conscious effort. I must make sure I’m not staring off to the side for too long.

In briefer back-and-forth verbal interactions, I hold eye contact pretty consistently. If I break it, that’s because it starts becoming a mild distraction.

#3     To Show My Interest

If someone’s answering my question, I’m going to hold eye contact. I want them to know I’m interested.

If I avoid it, they may cease talking or water down their answer, figuring I’m getting bored or losing interest.

When I’m the listener I tend to lock onto the speaker’s left eye. This has a mechanical feel to it rather than instinctive – yet is easy for me to sustain, though it also feels like I’m staring — especially if the recipient has “hard” eyes or I sense a disconnect with him or her.

But I can’t look away. The idea of looking away makes me think the speaker will stop or assume I’m not serious about the matter at hand.

This long eye contact feels like a formality, and maybe it’s also partially driven by societal expectations. I sometimes sense that I don’t quite get long eye contact “right.”

#4     To Show Politeness or Respect

If my niece is telling me a story, I don’t need to maintain contact with her eyes to follow her train of thought. I have ears.

But I do so, because if I avert the gaze, this makes me think she’ll feel offended.

Ironically, if I want to offend a person who’s being a total jerk, I’ll drill my eyes into theirs while I give them a piece of my mind. This strong eye contact is to send them a message: I don’t take guff from anyone!

#5     To Catch Someone’s Attention

During the mask mandates at the gym, I’d notice men with their mask only over their mouth. This angered me. I wore a mask that said, “The Mask Goes Over the Nose.”

So I’d be watching their eyes, hoping they’d make eye contact. When they did, I’d point to my mask, hoping they’d notice its message. Or, I’d signal with my hands for them to pull up their mask.

This approach actually worked for some of these men.

If I need assistance from a retail worker at Walmart or want to get a restaurant server’s attention, I’m going to try to catch their eyes. It’s not appropriate to yell across the diner, “Hey Miss! Come Here!” However, at Walmart, I’ve waved at employees from a distance to come my way — while making eye contact. I suppose when I’m waving, the eye contact isn’t necessary, but it IS a habit.

Does this mean that in every single case of brief human interaction, I lock my eyes onto theirs? No, not at all. 

Not long after my diagnosis, a cashier rung up a sale for me. Right away I suspected she was autistic (intense eye contact, flat facial expression and a peculiar speech pattern).

I met her eyes briefly here and there, but at the end, when she put the sales slip in the bag and handed it to me, I kept my eyes on the bag and thanked her. There was no need to give her another brief bout of eye contact, especially since I sensed she was uncomfortable just being there.

I give brief eye contact only when it can enhance the situation, or, to put another way, if avoidance might sour the situation.

Plus, sometimes it just naturally happens; in brief interactions it sometimes feels instinctive, though in other interactions, it feels like a formality.

#6     To Avoid Appearing Easily Victimized

This ties into the first reason. Gaze aversion comes across as a sign of nervousness, unsureness, of easily being harassed or bullied, of easily being taken advantage of, etc.

I don’t want to look like prey, and believe me, there are a LOT of predators out there – and I don’t mean just sexual assault. A predator could also be a scammer in the business world.

If the interaction is short and sweet, I may not give eye contact.

If someone, who’s exiting an elevator, holds the door for me as I enter, I’ll thank them but often won’t give eye contact. It would serve no purpose.

It’s a fleeting moment, a snapshot in time; eye contact is not necessary, and quite frankly, I don’t want it under this circumstance.

But if that man steps into the elevator with me, this changes the dynamics. I will briefly and confidently meet his eyes before the doors close on us.

Eye Contact to Communicate My Emotions

I don’t give eye contact to gain information from the other person other than to see if they’ve noticed that I want to speak to them.

It’s very rare that I rely on looking at their eyes to figure out their feelings.

Instead, I rely heavily on their words, how they’re talking and tone of voice, and their overall facial expression.

At an autism event, I met a man in his 50s who’d been diagnosed autistic a few years prior. What had led to his diagnosis was his son getting diagnosed several years before.

Jeff’s eye contact wih me appeared perfectly normal. I asked if he’d ever had any issues with eye contact. He said none whatsoever. Here is Jeff’s account of his eye contact.

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.