It’s well-publicized that autistic people often avoid eye contact or give very little.
But the opposite can be true as well: too much eye contact that gets noticed by others.
Below is my interview with Dr. Angel Durr, an autistic consultant and entrepreneur, and expert in automated technology solution design.
Angel went from a history of avoiding eye contact to that of giving too much.
She explains, “I have had people tell me in the past that my total avoidance of eye contact made people uncomfortable/feel as though I was dishonest, which is the last thing I want to have people assume.
“So I now opt for continued eye contact (to the point where it can also be overbearing to people).
“I would rather have people tell me I give too much eye contact, which happens quite often, instead of being told my eye contact isn’t enough or have people assume there is something disingenuous about my communication.”
Desensitized to Holding Eye Contact
For Angel, holding eye contact with strangers had always been difficult.
This had nothing to do with bashfulness or disinterest in people; none whatsoever.
“I used to avoid eye contact, but I learned to have eye contact by staring at people’s noses.”
Once she got used to keeping her eyes so close to another’s eyes (their nose), this repeated exposure enabled her to eventually move her eyes right onto theirs.
“Now I can make eye contact with strangers with no issue after implementing this tactic [nose contact] as a teen/young adult,” says Angel.
Why Angel Originally Avoided Eye Contact
In my research on autism and eye contact, I’ve found that there’s actually an intriguing variety of reasons why some autistic men and women avoid eye contact.
Furthermore, “avoidance” comes in varying degrees.
Q: In the past, were you able to hold eye contact with strangers once you got to know them better?
A: “I would say I struggled with making eye contact with strangers more than with people I knew from a young age.
“However, it also depends on the nature of the relationship between myself and the person.
“Even now it is the hardest with strangers, because when I lock eyes with someone I can feel what they are feeling.
“So I often internalize these feelings because I am unable to properly process them since I don’t know the person well enough to know where the feelings are coming from.
“I would say with people I don’t know well, this is a recurring issue even now.
“When I know a person very well and can process the feelings I feel when I lock eyes with them, it is much more comfortable for me to make eye contact.
“But I tend to not know what is an appropriate amount of eye contact — so I get really self-conscious about giving too much eye contact now as an adult.”
Q: What was your unique reason for avoiding eye contact with strangers? I don’t mean strangers you pass on the street or inside a store, but people you’re interacting with for the first time.
In my case I don’t give eye contact to strangers who simply pass by because I don’t want to make any connection.
But if I need to assert dominance without verbal interaction, such as when a man steps into an elevator with me, I’ll give brief acknowledging eye contact.
A: “I also agree that too much eye contact can assert dominance, and so people often accuse me of being aggressive because my eye contact is often considered excessive when I am trying to impress someone in professional settings.
“I think the hardest point of eye contact with strangers is picking up on feelings I don’t need or want to process.
“My brain already has a hard enough time processing all the stimuli around me, so I just feel like it makes things easier to avoid eye contact when it isn’t necessary for the situation.”
Q: Is this an empath experience with eye contact?
A: “No, I don’t agree with simply chalking this up to being empaths. I think the reason we pick up on more emotions as autistic folk (unlike what the stereotypes may say) is because our brains are processing double the stimuli at one time — because of the scientifically proven fact that more of our neural pathways are engaged compared to neurotypicals.
“Autistics aren’t reading the mind of the person on the other side, so just because we pick up on an emotion, doesn’t mean we know what it means or where it is coming from.
“We can inadvertently pick up on emotions that have nothing to do with us or that particular interaction.
“I personally don’t enjoy the feeling of reading peoples’ emotions, good or bad, especially when it comes to people I don’t know, because it overloads my brain with stimuli and makes it hard to communicate.”
Q: What if it’s a neutral context with neutral emotion?
A: “If someone is not experiencing some heavy emotional response when we engage, i.e., they are simply comfortable or neutral, I can make prolonged eye contact with less of an issue as a result.
“Which is why it tends to be easier with people I know well, but that isn’t always a universal rule.
“I actually feel more invasive picking up on the extreme emotions of people I already know in instances when I don’t know where the emotion is coming from.
“As a result, I’ve went out of my way to apologize to people because I’ve thought I offended them in some way — when really, they were thinking about something else that had nothing to do with me to begin with.”
Q: Do you ever consider picking up on emotions via eye contact a gift?
A: “I don’t look at it as a gift, but instead as a burden. I don’t want to have to pick up on emotions that have nothing to me, and it just makes it harder to focus on having normal conversations with folks.
“When your brain processes so much at one time due to having so many neural pathways engaged at one time, it can make the simplest of encounters overwhelming and stressful in ways others not on the Spectrum could never begin to imagine.”
Dr. Angel Durr obtained her PhD in information systems from the University of North Texas in 2018. She is an autism speaker focused on DEI, data, and entrepreneurship and is on speakerhub.com. Angel has a nonprofit called DataReady DFW that focuses on data literacy initiatives, and consults in strategic analytics.
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.