Victoria Jones, an educator and entrepreneur, is autistic. She shares three hacks for breaking eye contact while having a conversation – tricks that will go right past neurotypicals.
The neurotypical you’re talking with won’t even realize you’re breaking eye contact to give yourself a rest from the discomfort.
Some autistic people find eye contact troublesome for any number of reasons.
This includes a sensory overload in that sustaining eye contact takes conscious energy away from paying attention to a conversation.
For others it feels too personal, while yet for other autistics it feels like looking into a bright light.
Victoria, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 30, has a rather unique reason for why eye contact has been challenging for her.
“I used to be a classroom teacher, and my students would always ask me why I rolled my eyes so much,” begins Victoria.
“I had no idea what they were talking about at the time, but it turns out I roll my eyes upward without realizing it to avoid eye contact.
“I honestly didn’t know that I was avoiding eye contact with my students at the time—I had no clue.
“But now that I’m aware of my habit of rolling my eyes upward, I realize that I do it more often when speaking to someone I don’t know very well for more than a few seconds.
“Students would mention the eye rolling a lot at the beginning of the school year, but less and less as the year went on.
“My guess is that as I became more comfortable with them, I was able to look them in the eye for longer periods of time.”
What about short eye contact – the kind that one does in brief interactions of a one-time-only nature, such as speaking with a retail employee?
Victoria explains, “I give short eye contact when greeting people. I’m good at being able to look directly at someone for a few seconds, smile and say ‘Hi, how are you?’ or something like that.
“This is the direct result of working in customer facing roles when I was in my late teens and early 20s.
“I was never comfortable making eye contact to greet strangers until I was forced to do so hundreds of times a day while working the drive thru at McDonald’s.
“Waitressing at a pizza place and then working at a grocery store after that really helped me perfect my ability to look at someone when greeting them or engaging in brief small talk.”
Many neurotypicals (NTs) believe the reason some autistic people refrain from eye contact is because they don’t like the person they’re interacting with, or hold disdain towards people overall.
The silly thing about this assumption is that NTs will typically hold eye contact with someone they feel contempt towards.
Victoria’s reason for discomfort from eye contact is a bit unusual, in that it’s the reverse of a common reason some autistics want to avoid it.
She explains, “It was uncomfortable because looking into a stranger’s eyes made me feel as if I was invading their personal space without permission.”
The opposite of this – feeling as though the other person’s gaze is intrusive – is a relatively common reason some autistic people don’t like eye contact.
But in Victoria’s case, she gets a sensation that meeting a stranger’s eyes might make that person feel intruded upon somehow.
“Working at McDonald’s helped me realize that people actually like being looked at, and it’s something they expect me to do. It still feels weird on my end, but it’s something I can tolerate now.” For Victoria, eye contact is not instinctual and takes effort.
Hacks for Breaking Eye Contact that a Neurotypical Won’t Detect
When it comes to “long” eye contact – the type that occurs while in an extended conversation – Victoria says, “I do give long eye contact, but only if I’m extremely comfortable with the person I’m looking at.
“I can look my husband in the eyes for hours while we talk and it’s not uncomfortable at all.
“With friends and other family I can do it for awhile, but it doesn’t come as naturally as it does with my husband.
“After talking to a good friend for more than five minutes or so, I kind of have to force myself to keep looking at them.
“I also hide the breaks in eye contact by laughing in another direction, adjusting my glasses, or pretending that I’m noticing something else in the distance.”
- When you feel a laugh or even a smile coming on, shift your gaze. Even NTs do this (though not as deliberately).
- If you don’t wear glasses, adjust something else. For instance, move your head (and your gaze with it) to “adjust” an earring or necklace. Scratch or rub an eyebrow, your nose or a finger. Push back some hair. Simultaneously breaking eye contact will go unnoticed as a deliberate act.
- If you’re in a busy location, “noticing something in the distance” will blend in, since the NT will assume something interesting momentarily caught your eye.
For some autistic people, eye contact is a bandwidth issue. Because it requires conscious expenditure, rather than subconscious (as with NTs), it can be a real chore to maintain in a given conversation.
If you’re a neurotypical, imagine having to continuously shake someone’s hand while listening to them and also while speaking to them.
This would require conscious energy, and it would disrupt the flow of your focus on the conversation.
To some autistics, this is what holding eye contact during conversation is like.
In summary, Victoria finds eye contact to feel “really intimate and like an invasion of personal space,” meaning, she’s the intruder. “It also feels embarrassing at times.”
This intimation is not about social anxiety, shyness or some psychological issue. It’s about the brain wiring of Autism Spectrum.