I want you to see me as confident and self-assured, and the Alpha part of my brain overrides the Autistic part when it comes to eye contact.
I don’t need much information from people’s eyes, so I don’t know why I naturally look at them in conversation.
It’s probably because I want something from them (a service, some assistance, instructions, an explanation, or an answer to a question) — and if I were to avoid eye contact, they might water down their response, figuring I’m not really interested or am being rude.
And I also just can’t bear to take my eyes away from my lovely niece’s eyes who’s eagerly telling me a story. I feel that if I look away, she’ll feel offended.
Eye contact comes naturally to me in back-and-forth interactions, like with the guy at the auto service center or the landscaper I just hired. No problem.
But long before I began suspecting that I was possibly on the Spectrum, I knew that prolonged eye contact — something I always did when I had to do extended listening — brought with it an odd awareness.
I never thought much of this awareness. I just knew it was present the longer I was sustaining my gaze on the speaker’s left eye. Yes, it was always the left eye to start.
At some point, I’d consciously make a note to shift my gaze to their right eye, to balance things out.
Then I’d be aware of moving back to their left eye. I felt I had to keep this up. It was not intuitive. It was manual.
Sometimes I’d feel that if I continued holding the gaze, I’d somehow be overdoing it. But I couldn’t pull my eyes away from theirs.
Why? Because…I’m not sure…but I suspect it’s due to some kind of social conditioning in the Western world – that you’re SUPPOSED to hold eye contact when people are talking to you.
Apparently, this awareness — this non-instinctual execution of eye contact — doesn’t happen with neurotypicals.
So much, yet so little, is known about Autism Spectrum Disorder. A popular perspective in the autistic community is that autists are the true experts on ASD.
With that said, THIS autist believes that my eye contact is right at the border where “struggles” begin with many autistic individuals.
I shouldn’t have so much awareness of prolonged, non-interrupted eye contact, and it should feel more natural instead of feeling like something I “have to do.”
The speaker is always the first to break it unless a noise or another voice distracts me.
I think this is because my unrelenting gaze eventually makes them feel uneasy or awkward.
When they break it, I usually keep my eyes on theirs, to be ready for a return of their gaze.
I feel as though if my eyes aren’t on standby to receive theirs when they return their gaze, they’ll consider me either unfocused or no longer interested.
This has always been my thought process; it’s not something that’s new following my ASD diagnosis.
Perhaps I had developed this inclination long ago in an attempt to minimize social errors: Do whatever I can to avoid being thought of as socially inept or brusque — ahhh, cling to eye contact! Good strong eye contact is like a good strong handshake!
Since my autism diagnosis I’ve been to several meetups for autistic adults.
One of the men there has a very strong handshake – the strongest I’ve ever felt. He’s extended his hand to me twice now.
My take is that he squeezes hard – on everyone – to compensate for social awkwardness.
It’s easy for him to squeeze hard, and in his mind, perhaps this establishes himself higher up in the social pack, or makes him present as self-confident and self-assured. He also gives good eye contact.
In my case, my eye contact is my handshake. I don’t initiate handshakes, but if a friendly person or someone I may do, or plan on doing, business with, extends a hand – well of course I’ll shake it, and firmly, but not hard like the aforementioned man. I don’t feel I need to, what with my solid eye contact.
At social events for autistic adults, I experimented with reduced levels of eye contact, figuring that it would either go unnoticed or that it wouldn’t be an issue with them like it would with neurotypicals.
Well shucks, I just couldn’t reduce it much — even with a woman who said she was faking her eye contact with me by looking at something on a wall behind me. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
The only time I employ gaze aversion is when I deliver fruitful explanations of concepts, opinion, experiences, feelings – anything that requires deep thought.
I just can’t deliver efficiently if I’m also locked on the listener’s eyes. In fact, even gazing at various points of their face would be too distracting.
So for most of my deeper talking, my eyes are completely off their body. Every so often, though, I make a point to give eye contact to yield credibility, but then moments later, my eyes are off to the side again.
One time at a gym I noticed that a man kept looking at me. This was repeated over multiple different days. I always pretended I didn’t notice.
This meant I avoided face contact altogether. But one day I had had it. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “What are you staring at?”
He backed off. I never again saw him! Imagine how ineffective my tersely asked question would’ve been had I paired it with avoidance of eye contact!
I’m the first to announce that we should never go through life concerned about what others think of us.
But doggone it, we also never know if the next person we meet is a bully or some sort of predator.
This is why, for me, eye contact is so important. It establishes my position in the pack: Alpha!
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.