Or does the Autism Spectrum include TOO MUCH eye contact?
It’s no secret in the ASD community that many actually do make eye contact.
But for many of those, the eye contact is forced or requires a lot of self-reminding.
And for some, it comes with discomfort such as feeling too personal for just a casual interaction.
Many autistic people have taught themselves better eye contact and have faithfully practiced it.
So the big question then becomes: Did EVERY autistic person, who gives good eye contact, previously struggle with it and had to “learn” it?
Here’s another question: Does every autistic person, who gives what appears to be normal eye contact, find it uncomfortable or distressing in some way?
Let’s look at handshaking. People do this all the time. But for some, it’s very uncomfortable and feels too intimate or personal. But we’d never know that if they have a firm shake.
Same with eye contact: An autistic person can be looking you, a neurotypical, smack in the eye as you’re speaking to them – yet you’d have no idea how this feels to that autist.
It could be distracting them, making them miss some of what you’re saying.
It could be making them wonder if you’re able to read deeply into their mind.
Or, if neither of those situations are the case, the autistic could be continuously wondering if they’re doing eye contact correctly.
I received my autism diagnosis in spring of 2022. I’m in that apparently small percentage who’s never had to “struggle” with eye contact; I never had to learn or practice it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without a few quirks.
I’ve read every thread about eye contact on autismforums.com and wrongplanet.net, as well as on quora.com. I learned a LOT.
Many people describe how direct eye contact feels too intimate, intrusive, invasive, very uncomfortable, or that it “hurts” or is “painful,” or that it feels like looking at the sun. Avoiding the discomfort outweighs the social cost of avoiding direct gaze.
However, there are posts by other autists who don’t have difficulty with eye contact. Their descriptions actually are very similar to my experiences.
As kids get older, circumstances that “require” holding eye contact with non-family members increase in frequency.
For instance, when a teen gets their first job, they’re suddenly listening to an adult they just met explain instructions – an adult they’re not used to interfacing with.
Eye contact might be troublesome, whereas that teen could easily hold a gaze with his or her parents or a favorite school teacher.
In my case, I’ve almost always found the “required” long eye contact, while listening, to be on a conscious level, something I had to do because it’s what you’re supposed to do.
Long eye contact is more mechanical than instinctive for me. My eyes don’t move like the other (neurotypical) person’s – in that theirs will very rapidly flit back and forth, while mine will appear to them to be fixed in one spot.
This makes my gaze look intense. I do not know how to flit. I can look back and forth between their eyes, but not flit.
My long eye contact becomes a stare while I’m listening. And in the past, prior to my ASD diagnosis journey, I’ve often been aware of it, wondering if I was doing it right, if the other person thought I was staring too hard or unnaturally.
I’d wonder if they could tell something about me just by my fixed eye contact.
Group eye contact while I’m the speaker is a nuisance. I’ve never felt comfortable with it simply because I’ve always wondered if I was doing it right (not making too much eye contact with any one particular person; not leaving anyone shorted on it; wondering just how to distribute my gaze).
Sometimes at the gym when someone approaches and asks if they could take a weight plate from the peg racks of the equipment I’m on, I don’t bother giving eye contact because I don’t feel like it; it serves no purpose; so I tell them “Go ahead” while only glancing at their chest or hands as they’re reaching for the plate.
But if I’m the one asking to use a plate, I give eye contact. Why? I think it’s because I feel it’s necessary, though it serves no purpose beyond that.
I will give good, strong eye contact to make a point! I use it to assert myself; to show confidence; to display authority or feeling in control; when I need to be convincing; when I’m arguing or debating.
Eye contact during these circumstances feels very natural, as natural as making my voice sound assertive or fired up.
But I avoid it when passing strangers inside a building or in the locker room at the gym unless I am spoken to.
The Eyes Have It
Several autistic commenters in the discussion boards said they had no problem staring people down to assert dominance or show anger.
This included at least two women. Several men said that their uncontrolled hard stare in neutral conversation with another man made the man get aggressive. It intimidated women or made them think they were flirting.
So YES, some autists hold eye contact without anxiety or distress, but are unable to consciously, let alone automatically, calibrate it just right. It’s a chore!
The last thing I want is to be thought of as shy, insecure, easily taken advantage of or easily bullied — and avoiding eye contact will encourage these assumptions about me.
I want people to know I’m an Alpha and take-charge person. Good eye contact is necessary for this.
Other autists may feel the same way. However, we’re also a product of social engineering.
Threads Devoted to ASD and Eye Contact
Below are some of the threads I’ve read. Most posters have struggles with direct gaze. However, the overall picture seems to be that 10-15 percent of all of these posters have near-normal eye contact.
Eye contact (this thread is perhaps the “strongest” case for confirming that some autistic people have always had good eye contact or, at least, near-normal 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.