Before we tell you why they’re different, let’s touch on why they are even in the same grouping to begin with. The one thing they do have in common—all three rarely if ever make eye contact. It should be obvious why the first two avoid looking us in the eye—they’re trying to deceive us. But the person with autism is in the group for an entirely different reason. It’s a byproduct of their disability.
Whatever the reason, all three violate the social norm by avoiding eye contact when speaking. But that same social construct may be unknowingly hurting the growing autistic population.
When we talk about the “rules” of eye contact, we should look at who made the rules in the first place. Neuro-typicals (NT), or persons without a cognitive disability, have boldly declared: “the eyes are the window to the soul.” But considering those words were written by William Shakespeare who many believe was a person who had Asperger’s Syndrome—of course not diagnosed as such back then—the whole window to the soul thing seems quite ironic, wouldn’t you say?
The issue is that a person who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will more often than not have an issue making eye contact with most people. Just by the definition of the disorder given by our own Centers for Disease Control. It says: ASD is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
The truth is, people who have autism spectrum disorders have difficulty with reading even the most overt social cues in context. That goes for body language, hand cues, most gestures and the one that makes them most uncomfortable: eye contact.
How come? Why is it so difficult for someone with ASD to look someone in the eye? There are a few answers. Firstly, let’s just come right out and be blunt. Or, should we say, go right between the eyes—pun intended. It is very difficult for persons with ASP to concentrate on what words to say in a conversation and to also concentrate on looking in someone’s eyes as they do it. Their minds are working overtime to process the information coming in and double-time working to get out what they want to communicate that the process of looking in someone’s eyes while they do it is extremely daunting. That concentration is needed for the verbal communication and “wasting” energy on eye contact just takes away from the task at hand.
A young woman named April put it this way: “When I look in people’s eyes it is an intense experience and I find it hard to focus on their words.” We often find a connection when we look into someone’s eyes. Someone with ASD will more often than not, become lost.
For many, the sensory overload is virtually impossible to handle. Let’s just say too much sensory input makes eye contact difficult for many, and sometimes even physically painful.
Another way to think about it is the Left/Right brain connection. Or, in the case of most with ASD, the broken link. Most neurotypical persons (NT) have a flowing relationship between the left and right side of their brains. The logical left side works in conjunction with the creative (non-linear) right side. The left brain controls speech and language. The right side often interprets the world around us—music, sounds, emotions and the nuances of life. When both sides are working in conjunction, the flow of information is not only informative but functional.
When a “NT” has a conversation with another person, we might say something to them and almost instantly notice or perceive a “response” from the other person. Our brain made the connection by seeing that slight look of concern or an ever-so-subtle head turn and make the judgment that we might have struck a nerve, said something hurtful or that they possibly just didn’t understand what we were saying. We will usually correct ourselves or ask if we said something wrong or inappropriate. Our left brain said the words, our right brain interpreted the reaction and our left/right brain combo had a quick, impromptu staff meeting of the mind and before long, we were attempted to remedy the situation. Someone with ASD won’t get the memo. No such meeting will occur because no such information can be communicated left to right brain or visa versa.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone with ASD doesn’t get anything out of making eye contact and may even find it a distraction and therefore useless, there’s absolutely no reason for them to do it.
Unfortunately for many persons with cognitive disabilities, the ability, or lack thereof, to make eye contact is not only uncomfortable for them but for whomever they’re talking with.
For persons with ASD who have the ability to work, relationships with co-workers can get strained rather quickly. Many find it difficult to even get past the interview process. Amy Castaneda, a Senior Employment Counselor at LaunchAbility in North Dallas will attend a job interview with her clients whenever possible. As a job coach she knows that many persons with cognitive disabilities are more than able to do the job. She just doesn’t want a miscommunication between a client and a prospective employer to be the reason for them to not be hired. Many times she will explain why her client isn’t making eye contact and that it is certainly NOT because of arrogance or because they have something to hide. Most interviewers understand it (left side of their brain) but they still very often find it somewhat uncomfortable (right side).
The German artist “Bareface” (her real name is Gee Vero) was diagnosed as a person with Asperger’s syndrome later in life after her son was diagnosed at the age of 2 ½. Her experience has been, for some reason, a person with Autism seem to be the lease respected of all the “different” people out there.
Vero might have discovered the best analogy possible: My response to people who complain about eye contact with autistic people is that if we were in a wheel chair no one would even think about getting upset about us not getting up when introduced.
She’s absolutely right. And if we were speaking to a person who is blind, we certainly wouldn’t assume their lack of eye contact meant they were trying to hide something. We would hopefully attribute it to their disability.
We need to start doing the same to persons with ASD. Remember, they can see. They just can’t make eye contact while they’re doing it.