An Autistic entrepreneur gives detailed explanations of why eye contact is so difficult for her.

Her reasons will surprise you. This will help you better understand why, for some autistic individuals, eye contact can give rise to high levels of discomfort.

And it has nothing to do with “disliking people,” “not caring” or being “unfriendly.”

This is a straight Q & A with Jennifer Parr, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 30.

This doesn’t mean that prior, during all those years, her significant challenges with eye contact didn’t exist.

Jennifer, founder of DIYvinci, an online retail store offering craft supplies, kits and décor, learned to create the illusion that she was giving more eye contact than she actually was.

“Eye contact is typically very uncomfortable for me,” she begins.

“When someone meets my eyes, it’s almost like an electric jolt that goes through me and sets off my adrenaline and fight or flight response.

“I often have trouble remembering what I was trying to say, as the rise of adrenaline makes it that much harder to focus.”

Below Is the Q & A, from One Autistic (Me) to Another.

Me: Do you literally feel that “electric jolt,” or is that just a metaphor?

Jennifer: I really do feel an electric jolt. It isn’t so much like actually being physically shocked by electricity, but this is the closest way I can describe it.

It doesn’t always happen every time, but often happens both with strangers and people I’ve known for years.

It’s almost like when meeting someone else’s eyes, their energy shoots through me.

I believe this to be a type of an adrenaline rush in response to social anxiety.

Sometimes it feels like my heart skips a beat, but not in a “good” way like a lot of people describe their heart “skipping a beat” when they look at someone they like.

It feels more like when someone suddenly pops out at you when you weren’t expecting it.

Does your experience occur with mainly people you meet for the first time, or does the “someone” in “When someone meets my eyes” refer to just about any individual?

Someone refers to anyone. It doesn’t happen all the time with people I’m more comfortable with like family members. However, it can sometimes still happen on occasion.

It also happens with people I have known for years or even most of my life such as friends, but I don’t see them every day. It happens a little less with them, but at a higher rate than with family.

The next level would be causal friends, and I’d say it happens probably just as much as it does with strangers. Sometimes it can depend on the other person’s energy.

There are some people I’ve come in to contact with where I’m surprised to find meeting their eyes isn’t that difficult, but others it’s nearly impossible.

I’ve yet to figure out why this is. I’m not sure if it’s the person’s energy, the current state I’m in, the environment I’m in or a combination of all of the above.

What about eye contact sets off the adrenaline and fight/flight response?

For me it’s always been more automatic. I’m not really sure why it sets off my fight or flight response except that I’ve never been great in social situations — and years of struggling with it has made me react this way.

I know I always hated attention as a kid because I didn’t want people looking at me.

Whether this was because I didn’t what to make the eye contact or if I started not liking eye contact because I didn’t like the attention, I’m not sure.

I often would look about peoples mouths instead, as that sometimes helps me to process verbal language by being able to read lips, though some people would notice and think it was weird — so I did try to make more eye contact growing up and just holding it for only a few seconds at a time.

I do find I look more towards peoples eyes when they aren’t directly looking into my eyes.

Have you ever tried to desensitize this response by practicing eye contact with family members and friends, or even with eyes looking straight at you on a TV screen or a photo? Another way to desensitize is looking between the person’s eyes, and over time, gradually moving closer to their pupils.

I have tried to desensitize a little in the past with photos, TV or with people I’m close with.

I think years of practice has made it easier. I also was a freelance photographer for a while and sometimes would find it easier to meet people’s eyes while looking through the lens of the camera.

I think exposure therapy can help in certain situations; however, it’s important to first uncover the reason for the discomfort of eye contact.

I believe mine is due to both anxiety and being able to sense things (like other people’s energy) that others can’t.

Therefore, exposure might be good for me to help with the anxiety part, but I can still get caught off guard in various situations which triggers the reaction despite my best efforts.

Would desensitization therapy even be necessary?

I think therapy would depend on the individual and their goals for wanting to improve eye contact.

In many cases, even doing it to “seem normal” could be considered a safety thing for neurodivergents.

Some may wish to do it to avoid becoming targets of crime or bullying; some may do it so they can keep their job or advance in their job; some may do it because they wish to connect with people or find a romantic partner.

I personally think it’s about finding balance. I’ve begun accommodating myself and not putting a ton of pressure on myself to meet people’s eyes, but I will still make myself do it more around strangers when it’s important to evaluate intent — or when I’m meeting someone who doesn’t know me well yet and I want to make a “good” impression.

What do you think would happen, or how would you feel, if you decided to maintain eye contact for 30-60 seconds with a stranger – and the stranger knew you were Autistic and wanted to help with the experiment?

I think I could do it if I was in an environment that didn’t have a ton of other stressors.

Probably if I was inside and sitting down and it only involved looking in their eyes and not having to talk at the same time.

You mention energy. What if the person has no energy; they’re really mellow and laid back?

This one is a little more difficult to explain. Everything that is living has an energy around it.

For most of my life (until I started taking antidepressants which has highly dampened this ability) I could sense a living thing without being able to see it.

I started to be able to tell the difference between energies to determine if it was human, animal (sometimes even the type of animal) or plant (though plants are a little different, and I have to be really close to them to sense it).

Humans I sense more strongly of course, and the energy is extremely complex compared to animal energy.

I suppose a lot of people would consider this more like a “sixth sense” situation, but I think it has to do with heightened sensory input and that my brain is able to somewhat process that input in an understandable way.

Good Eye Contact Doesn’t Rule Out Autism

As a spectrum disorder, not every Autistic presents with all the same features. There is great variety among autistic people.

We are not templates and should never be compared to other Autistics any more than a neurotypical should be compared to other NTs.

Some autistic people give good eye contact – either because it’s always been easy or natural, or, they have practiced it and self-desensitized. Some feel no discomfort but must remind themselves to do it. Some Autists even overdo eye contact.

Please post your eye contact experiences in the comments section below!

Jennifer Parr has always had a devoted obsession to art and creativity. DIYvinci’s ultimate goal is to help others discover their own creative side and find enjoyment through art and crafting.
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.