This autistic young man (above) once avoided eye contact as much as possible. Now he’s at ease with eye contact due to karate training.

I spent a good part of my teenage life avoiding looking at people’s faces directly. I used to envy those who did.

(It was not as worst in childhood compared in my teenage life. I was less self-conscious of it in my childhood. People said I was a shy small boy, and I thought that was it.)

It was very difficult for me, so each time I saw people making eye contact with ease, I felt jealous and I wondered how they did it.

I remember asking my younger brother one day how he found it very easy to look at people’s faces, and he told me it was because I lacked confidence.

Everywhere I [went], it [didn’t] take much time before people notice I avoid making eye contact. I got so used to hearing comments like “Span, look at me; Span, what’s so interesting about the floor; Span, am I so ugly that you can’t even afford to take a glance; Span, I think you have low self-esteem and I need you to work on it,” etc.

People attributed it to low self-esteem, but I knew it wasn’t that. I think highly of myself and I am very confident, so I was sure it wasn’t that; but I couldn’t place exactly what it was until I was diagnosed [with autism spectrum disorder].

I avoided eye contact because it made me very uneasy. I just didn’t see the need to look at people’s faces. It felt very weird, and for an over-thinker like me, I was always wondering about the things people think about another person while making eye contact.

I did not exactly fit in anywhere I went to while growing up. I felt different, and I felt like I was misplaced in a society I am not suppose to be in. So making eye contacts with people made me very uncomfortable.

I over-think my next words while making eye contact, something like “Is my next statement going to make sense?” and it always ended up not making sense.

The feeling of being different made me very conscious of what I say because I’m not sure of how people will take it, even though it made absolute sense to me — so avoiding eye contact was my escape route and coping mechanism. It made me feel more in control.

The few times I have managed to force myself to make eye contact with people never ended well.

I tend to get lost in my headspace and lose complete track and control of the conversation. I tend to stammer and make use of a lot of “hmm, ermm” to fill in.

It makes me so nervous and uncomfortable that I’m already thinking of the next words to say, and they never come out because my words are messy.

The only thing I was worried about was the fact that people took it for a lack of self-esteem.

Everyone, even my family, thought it was a lack of confidence, and I get gifted self-love books from time to time.

Sometimes I felt like screaming to everybody, “I love myself more than you will ever do; please stop the unsolicited advice.”

Martial Arts and Eye Contact

Martial arts has helped me realize that I have more than my shortcomings, and there is nothing I cannot do as long as I put in the effort.

Most of the time, karate moves involve a partner, so while sparring, I had no choice but to watch my partner and his every move under my prying eyes.

It was not easy at first and it felt weird. In fact, I became lost in thoughts in the karate process, and I lost my guard, but for each time I got defeated, I had the urge to do more.

And it’s with this determination that I have decided to give it my all.

Although it took me out of my comfort zone, it has broken me free from my over-thinking personality, and now I don’t have to think too much while making eye contact.

With my experiences these past few years, eye contact works like magic. I have been able to start up meaningful conversations and watch people actually engage in them with so much enthusiasm, it’s shocking.

It means a lot for me because the former me would keep to myself and avoid any form of conversation that would lead to making eye contact.

I have more friends now because people think I’m overly confident, and I know what I want.

I do not get suppressed, subdued, shut down and quieted as I used to be, and people actually think highly of me now; it feels awesome!

I no longer avoid meeting people because now, I can look them straight in the eyes and not over-think it.

It took me years to get me here, and I’m grateful for every bit of my journey. Of course, I’m not at the end of my journey. I’m still looking forward to more growth. autism

Span Chen is a martial arts enthusiast and founder of The Karate Blog. He began studying martial arts at 22 and has been training for seven years. autistic

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