Autistic Eye Contact: the intensity of a shared gaze

Another autistic facet is only just sinking in: my awe of eyes.

Autistic folks do not like to look people in the eye. They avoid it as if it were painful for them. In fact, it is painful, in a way, at least for me.

But simultaneously of course traumatized people also do not look people in the eye. I’ve always assumed my aversion was trauma-based, and it isn’t like there was ever a time in my life before trauma that I could use as a baseline.

I’ve known about these eye-contact issues for a while, both sources, but I only just put it all together for myself in my own case.

“Eyes are the window to the soul.” Whoever said that was right, but everyone says that so often that it’s lost its meaning—or else, just possibly, the intensity I feel looking into another person’s eyes is not felt by neurotypical folks.

Here’s the deal: in my dissertation I mention a statue from the Athenian Acropolis, one of the oldest extant, called the Moskhophoros since he’s carrying (-phor-) a calf (moskhos).

Here’s the statue, or what’s left of it after the Persians were through with it. (This statue was standing on the Acropolis when they sacked Athens on their second invasion.)

In my dissertation I point out that this guy’s physique is emphasized “by the frame of his open garment and the detail of the figure’s bellybutton, almost like an eye how it demands the viewer’s attention.”

After the prof directing my dissertation read that bit of the draft, he returned it with a large question mark under ‘almost like an eye how it demands the viewer’s attention.’ I’ve been confused about his confusion for several months, not actively but it has been on my mind occasionally at least. Finally I understand his confusion: it is tied up with neurotypical researchers’ confusion about autistic/neurodivergent folks’ aversion to meeting people’s gazes.

In the study where I saw my own experience presented to me in the scientific literature for the first time in my life, there was a consistent mystery about eye contact and autistic people, even as the conclusions of the study itself suggested the answer to this alleged mystery.

The study results in a theory of autism dubbed the Intense World Theory, which is like it sounds: everything is working much more intensely in an autistic person’s brain than in a neurotypical brain. Autistic brains are characterized by hyperfunctionality relative to neurotypical brains, not a deficiency.

Exactly the same intensity is at the root of my aversion to casual eye contact. There is little more intimate in my experience than maintaining someone’s gaze. Most sex is less intimate to me than sharing an overlong gaze. The only physical penetration more potently intimate than a shared gaze is the combination of physical and visual penetration.

In conversation, I can often feel people searching for my gaze, as if the direction of their eyes casts a beam onto me. I can almost always tell immediately when I’m being looked at: an inquisitive glance is never lost on me. Our eyes are more socially powerful than most of us seem to realize, though I’ve never understood why so few people understand that.

Well, hell… The non-recognition of the power of their own gaze makes a lot of sense if most people are not as sensitive to eye contact as I and other autistic folks are. Being less sensitive to the power of our eyes, how could a neurotypical person see an eye in a bellybutton when eyes have never held any power over them?

Also now I suspect that autistic and traumatic gaze aversion are distinct: I am hyper-vigilant about other people and what they’re doing around me due to my urgent need to literally survive my childhood, though I’m already prone to hyper-vigilance because I’m autistic and have AD/HD. This hyper-vigilance is a trauma response if I’ve ever seen one. On the other hand, I suspect the hyper-functional awareness of autism is behind my urge to at least shield my own eyes by a pair of glasses for my sense of being exposed to the world without them, a kind of nakedness more naked than physical nudity, an exposure deeper than any radiography could reveal.

Perhaps without your glasses you feel ‘naked’ in the sense of having forgotten to put on an item of clothing, something separate from yourself, or like how you feel after you get to go outside without bundling up against winter weather. But do you think about the covering element of your glasses? How a pair of glasses dulls the access to your eyes, only subtly for sure, but enough. A gaze into my glasses-covered eyes will not plumb the depths reached without my glasses on. Without my glasses it is all too easy to look into my eyes and know exactly what I’m really thinking and how I’m feeling about it.

Our eyes are windows. So long as I can see them clearly, your eyes will tell me as much if not more than your body language. Your eyes will give you away—unless you already know that your eyes will betray you and you’ve trained yourself against it. I don’t even need to spend minutes looking you in your eyes to see into your inner self. A passing or peripheral gaze is enough for me to know you, to see you as you are, as you would like to be, as you have been, as you had wanted to be.

[Check out this new research on facial expression recognition, finding that autistic folks are no worse than anyone else.]

Researchers positing that autistic folks are ‘disinterested’ in other people’s eyes are fooling themselves. It is not disinterest that keeps my gaze averted; quite the opposite, it is my respect for the power of our eyes that propels me to avert my eyes. I adhere to the golden rule as practice: my sociality is based in mutual respect.

The advent of scrolling up or down on a computer screen to read an article has brought me a new challenge: when there’s a picture embedded within text, the eyes appear suddenly on my screen and they demand immediate recognition.

Even though I know they aren’t live in front of me, I find myself averse to meeting the gaze of random creatures in an image, human and nonhuman alike. I take in the image around the eyes before finally taking in their eyes. Unless it’s a politician, then I go straight for the eyes: I do not like games. Eyes help me strategize around the games of wanna-be oligarchs. But on the other hand it’s devastating to look into the eyes of a devastated person. I do not look into the eyes of grieving people in photographs; the grief that wells within me at the sight is too much.

From a neurotypical perspective, when mixed in with a crowd of neurotypicals, autistic folks are not ‘social.’ But I’m pretty damn sociable, even downright social, in the right context. With other neurodivergent people, my sociability could be rivaled by few others. From what I’ve read in the many autistic/neurodivergent support groups on Facebook, my experience of sociality is also the experience of many other autistic folks.

My hyper-sensitivity to people’s eyes, apparently one of the many things about me that is classically autistic, as well as my own experience of it as a window exposing us more intimately than all other exposures combined, leads me to a further consideration about received opinions on autistic socialization.

I suspect that in an eye contact study I would be scored quite poorly for eye contact but highly for social intelligence, but then below average in conveying what I understand in a clear manner (since what I understand is more complex than our syntax and language allows). It does not take me more than a moment to form a picture of a social scene, to tease out the dynamics between people. Once I’ve formed my picture of the sociopolitical dynamics (that is the dynamics related to sociality and interpersonal power), I don’t need to linger over it; there’s much else to attend to.

That is how I enter conversations: I read a room, and go where the whim takes me, maybe to a good friend caught in some drama over there, or maybe to a little-known person if I’m not in the mood for drama (I’m usually not). Even in a room with neurotypical folks, I am almost always up to speed on social dynamics and attuned to even the subtlest shifts in the room, even if I’m not often able to articulate the dynamics in full without time for reflection.

What would appear to be disinterest, in other words, to a neurotypical observer, is probably a response driven by the too-much-ness of eye contact, by an awareness of the power of our eyes common to autistic/neurdoivergent folks but lacking among others.

Tyra’s “Smeyes,” her ‘smile eyes’ are a perfect example of the power of our eyes: a dead-eyed smile reveals its inauthenticity, but smiling eyes even without an actual smile is enough to express genuine joy.

But then again, it’s hard to see anything in another person’s eyes if all you see is yourself staring back at you, that negligent lack of awareness brought on by unreflexive ways of thinking endemic among neurotypical individuals.

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