It may have nothing to do with your tear ducts, social anxiety or “lack of confidence.” There’s a possible explanation that few threads mention.
Nobody knows how common (or uncommon) it is for someone to experience watery eyes when giving eye contact to another human.
But this topic comes up on reddit.com and Quora, with explanations centering on bashfulness, lack of self-confidence, social stress and trying too hard to connect to other people in conversation.
There’s another plausible explanation that needs to be considered. Of all the threads I read on reddit.com and Quora, only one individual introduced this possible explanation: Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The poster has Asperger’s syndrome (mild autism) – a term that the American Psychiatric Association no longer uses, and instead, all levels of autism are grouped under Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Issues with eye contact are common in autistic people. Some have difficulty holding it or even making it briefly, while others overdo it and tend to stare into the eyes of others during conversations.
What I found telling in several of the thread comments was that the poster said that in addition to watery eyes with eye contact, they also perceived eye contact to be awkward in general, and also named a few other elements relating to their social interaction – elements that autistic people often speak of.
Sundance Brennan was diagnosed with ASD in his early 40s. He’s an author, public speaker and entrepreneur whose eyes water as a result of eye contact.
Sundance explains, “My diagnosis has also shed some light on why I’m so comfortable speaking in public. I have no stage fright because it doesn’t matter to me what the audience thinks of me personally. I think of my ability to speak in public, and to put on a persona while there, as a superpower.”
Excess tearing of the eye is called epiphora, and epiphora has numerous causes, especially if it occurs in only one eye.
Those causes include a clogged punctum, a blockage in the lacrimal drainage system and a corneal scratch.
Sundance’s epiphora of both eyes at the same time is not related to emotion, shyness, lack of confidence, chronic dry eye or allergies.
If it were chronic dry eye (in which the lacrimal glands over-secrete in response to dryness) or allergies, the tearing would occur in the absence of eye contact.
Could it be due to his autism?
This is a very fair question, and it would not make sense to dismiss his autism as a cause.
“In my 20s I started wearing sunglasses in social situations because I didn’t understand why my eyes would tear up and turn red when having ‘casual’ conversations,” says Sundance. “I told people I had sensitive eyes.”
This isn’t an issue of overactive lacrimal (tear) glands, because if it were, it wouldn’t just be triggered by eye contact.
“Yes, my eyes would tear up when making direct eye contact,” says Sundance.
“I never received a diagnosis about this, but it was persistent until I was in my 30s, when I started to actively find communication coping mechanisms.
“It still happens from time to time, but I’m pretty good at overtly avoiding eye contact now until I’m ready and then for only a few seconds of contact.
“I use a head tilt of about 20%, with a smile and nod combination while I squeeze the muscles around my eyes to get that ‘smile in the eyes’ look.
“I find if I hold eye contact longer than a couple of seconds, other people are uncomfortable for one reason or another.”
Q & A — Eyes Watering from Eye Contact
I asked Sundance the following questions.
At around what age did you begin realizing your eyes watered with direct eye contact?
My earliest memory of this was in elementary school, 3rd-4th grade.
How did you manage this?
I grew my hair long and it covered my eyes. I went to a school for the gifted and my oddities were tolerated.
I often removed my glasses when talking to people. I don’t have any recollection of ever being confronted about this.
What did your parents think of it?
My parents separated when I was young and I was raised by my father, who was mostly absentee.
I still don’t look him in the eyes. I did have extended family who showed some concern, but generally didn’t get too involved.
How many seconds into eye contact before the tearing begins?
It’s longer now as an adult. I can look at someone for 5-10 seconds if I need to.
If they’d just remain watery, without any rolling tears, what would be your reason for not just maintaining the eye contact — if it was an interaction in which your gaze to the other person would be crucial such as to assert authority or conviction?
I would occasionally get into trouble and someone would say “Look at me,“ but this is usually a situation where crying wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for me growing up.
As an adult I focus on peoples’ eyebrows and I’ve never been called out for it.
You mention that direct gaze longer than a few seconds makes people uncomfortable.
Prolonged eye contact seems to generate defensiveness, anger or in some cases amorous responses, none of which I want.
It’s entirely possible that I misjudged human nature here, but I’m not willing to risk changing my behavior.
What made you begin suspecting you had ASD?
My wife bought a book: “Loving Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome,” and I asked her why she had it. This had nothing to do with any eye contact issues.
Sundance Brennan was diagnosed with autism in his early 40s and now strives to help others with similar diagnoses excel in the workplace. He is a father, husband, public speaker, author and serial entrepreneur.
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.
Top image: Freepik.com