Look at Me! Look at Me?

Written by Steve Thomas, M.Sc

Lately I have been thinking about the significance of Autism and eye gaze. Typically ‘it’s a lying tell’ or negative behaviour (“seeming shifty”) to look away or struggle to meet another persons eyeline. However for me tiredness, anxiety, or distress may make it difficult to maintain eye contact (even briefly). During these ‘extreme eye aversion’ periods, others seem to find my body language harder to read – more so since my responses start to become monosyllabic, abrupt and laboured; seeming more tangent-focused and pithy than usual (very deceptive because my social energy is actually dwindling very quickly!).

In a lot of way this need to “seem dishonest and distracted” to others, no doubt confuses non-autistics’, but for me as an Aspergiac/Aspergic, it becomes a necessity to conserve social and emotional energies – as a coping mechanism of sorts, to decrease time between fatigue and time before I can quietly decompress when I get home.  However my use of language and emotional expressiveness also becomes very limited, during extreme eye aversion periods – seeming to the uninitiated observer that I am “being difficult”, “aloof”, “evading direct questions” and “have better things to do”. However, during these shut-down periods I wish that I could convey that this process is neither a conscious choice, nor dishonest: my brain and body’s energies have become more quickly depleted by increased sensory, social, or emotional needs required to conform and function in a very busy Autism-unfriendly Society.

Latest research also suggests that forcing Autistic eye gaze may heighten stress, anxiety and fear responses in the brain. (Hadjkhani, et al, 2017)  In particular I am hoping that this first-person account encourages the reader (and hopefully non-autistics) to be more tolerant of eye aversion, and more aware that even Autistics’ with “good eye contact” may struggle socially, when internal energy demands exceed external energies necessary to emote (or even communicate verbally). I also hope that this shared information encourages Autistic individuals to self-care more during eye aversion shut-down periods (can meetings be re-scheduled? abridged to on-paper notes only? held in a quieter room? or be replaced by email contact instead?).

As always, I am happy for people to Re-tweet, re-share on social media, discuss topic further in comment section, or use segments of content (if author name acknowledged).