Why some autistic people avoid eye contact?

Eye contact -or its absence- is sometimes perplexingly big deal in neurotypical world. Apparently, it is perfectly right and decent to discriminate against people who do not take eye contact and threaten people who struggle with it with harsh social sanctions. Why is that even necessary, if eye contact is so incredibly natural and positive?

Discrimination and prejudice against people who do not make eye contact is a rather typical example of discrimination targeting autistic people. Many understand that it is not ok to discriminate against autistic people openly, but discrimination against individual traits common among autistic people is a whole another deal. It is quite acceptable to mock things such as reaching life’s milestones late, being a loner, having unusual tastes, differences in body language or physical clumsiness.

Of course, I should start by saying that autists are not the only people who may avoid eye contact. Lack of eye contact is not a telltale sign of autism any more than any other individual trait. There exist many autistic people who manage eye contact quite naturally and many more who can mask it because they want to avoid social sanctions, risking their health and wellbeing in doing so. I, for one, spent way too many years of my life masking. After autistic burnout, I have not able to afford such energy drain. After needing to stop masking eye contact, I noticed to my astonishment, that avoiding eye contact caused no problems to my socializing, and it certainly has not made me an outcast. One can survive as their authentic self, after all!

When it matters, I may nowadays disclose that I am autistic and that eye contact is not part of my repertoire. Everyone I have told this has taken my disclosure well. I wish I had not had to live for forty years and be heavily encouraged to try authenticity by my therapist to realize that eye contact has little use. I can express my being a civilized person, a decent citizen and and a likeable person in many other ways. I now consider masking eye contact and discrimination against lack of eye contact as wasted energy. Is it not most polite to be benevolent towards new acquintances and refrain from making kitchen sink psychological interpretations of their body language?

In autistic community, eye contact and related pressures are regular topics of discussion. Talking among people from the whanau I have found out that those autists who avoid eye contact do so out of good and understandable reasons. Following four reasons may be the most common, together and separately.

  1. Eye contact feels terribly unnatural Never think that eye contact is done when you manage to stare at your discussion partner’s eyeballs. Oh no. In order to create a positive impression, it must be just the right kind of eye contact that happens at exactly right moment and has just right duration. In other words, demanding eye contact is effectively demanding passing neurotypicality check. If you are unable to make eye contact naturally, it is really hard to do it just right. Anyone can imagine, how hard a social situation quickly becomes if you have to concentrate in producing exactly right kind of eye contact. Naturally, failure to do eye contact just right is socially sanctioned like failing at it altogether. Not exactly fair, no?
  2. Eye contact is stressful If eye contact is masked or something one can do with serious effort, it is unreasonably draining. Many of us have been (and still are) raised to existence in perpetual state of exhaustion and find it difficult to reognize sources of stress. I myself realized only after autistic burnout, what a terrible energy drain masking eye contact was for me. I simply could no longer afford it, if I wanted to be well, able to function and work. The goal of good manners is to make social interactions easy and pleasant. This certainly is not what happens if one party is forced to stress themselves to near death only so that the other party can obtain their tiny dopamin kick. Good manners are equally possible for everyone involved, not terribly draining or little kitchen sink psychological tests.
  3. Eye contact feels aggressive Eye contact does not represent universal paragon of good manners. There exist entire cultures that agree with eye contact avoiding autists that eye contact feels aggressive and impolite. From Near East to Hawaii, there exist several cultures where avoiding direct eye contact is considered polite. Things that are commonly cited as being communicated via eye contact, can obviously be communicated well also without it. Eye contact is not a necessity and it is not everyone’s way to be polite.
  4. Eye contact breaks personal boundaries To me, like to many other autists, unmasked eye contact is a very intimate connection. Its place is in closest relationships only. Even though being considerate sometimes requires tolerating certain amount stress (though usually far less than what autists mean when they say that something is “stressful”), nobody should be forced to tolerate having their personal boundaries disrespected in name of “considersation”. I am not particularly brusque when I refuse eye contact -also my therapist of several years and my best friend are people with whom I do not make eye contact. Like all people, autists have right to have their personal boundaries respected. If some of those boundaries exist in uncommon places, it is no reason to disrespect them. Because lack of eye contact is, for the time being, socially sanctioned, I think one could see not masking in positive light, as sign of authenticity and trust: I do not mask with you because I trust you and assume that you accept me the way I am.

It is important for autistic people to understand, that we do not owe eye contact to anyone. Arguing that eye contact really feels good is not stating universal truths but toxic gaslighting, and no amount of pleading, persuading or dog training (aka. ABA) will change that. The idea that autists should allow people to trample over our boundaries just because the majority wants to do so, is limitless behavior.

When that enters the picture, we are very far from politeness and good manners. Everyone’s personal boundaries are where they are. Society needs to accept that not everyone’s boundaries are the same. It is possible to communicate every thing worth communicating without eye contact. In fact, I would say, that when people make a problem out of someone’s lack of eye contact, the real problem is somewhere else altogether.

Kaiao’s mission is to make autism and sensory sensitivity easy to understand and approachable, and describe autism in a way that reflects lived experience of autistic people. If you wish to understand autism better, contact me saara.reiman@kaiao.fi