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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

Understanding Eye Contact in Autistic Adults

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Often in society, the established social and behavioral norms come easily for one group of people but not for another. One example is how neurotypical people and autistic individuals view eye contact. For many neurotypical people, eye contact is a given, an unspoken rule of communication that’s deeply rooted in societal norms and cultural contexts; however, for many autistic individuals, this seemingly simple act can evoke many different emotions and experiences.

neurotypical adult trying to make eye contact with her autistic friend

When autistic individuals follow their own norms for eye contact, they may not align with mainstream expectations. This difference in behavior is often assessed by neurotypical standards and misinterpreted, affecting societal perceptions of them.


In this blog post, I will explore the differences in how neurotypical people and autistic individuals perceive eye contact while also debunking common misconceptions and harmful stereotypes. I will also provide practical tips and strategies for handling eye contact with neurotypical people.


Eye Contact Norms in Neurotypical People

Human communication is a vast, intricate web of different rules and interactions, and eye contact plays a key role in facilitating these interactions. For neurotypical people, maintaining eye contact is often seen as a sign of active engagement, suggesting interest and displaying attentiveness. It's a nonverbal cue with deep psychological implications – signifying respect, building trust, and assisting in emotion perception.

an eye of an autistic man

The norms of eye contact are not universally fixed but are instead shaped by cultural contexts. For example, in many Western societies, steady eye contact is considered a sign of confidence and honesty. By contrast, in some Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, direct eye contact can be seen as confrontational or disrespectful, especially when it's between people of different social statuses or ages.


Despite these variations, one common theme prevails: the power of eye contact in bridging the gap between spoken words and perceived meaning. It's a social tool that allows others to “see” emotions, intentions, and thoughts that may not be verbally communicated. However, this seemingly automatic behavior can lead to misunderstandings when interacting with people who process eye contact differently, such as some autistic people.


Understanding this nuance is the first step towards empathizing with and accommodating the sensory experiences of autistic individuals, as their view of eye contact differs from their neurotypical peers.


Understanding Eye Contact in Autistic Individuals

autistic woman talking with a friend making eye contact that is "normal" for her

For neurotypical people, eye contact is often straightforward and instinctive; however, for many autistic individuals, it can be a different story. To fully understand this, it's important to first acknowledge that autism covers a spectrum, meaning the experiences and sensitivities of one autistic individual can differ greatly from those of another. This is certainly true when it comes to eye contact.


The perception of eye contact among autistic individuals varies widely. That said, there are some common reasons why autistic individuals have a different view of eye contact from their neurotypical peers.


Sensory Overload

Many autistic individuals experience the world in high definition. Every sight, sound, smell, and sensation is heightened, which includes eye contact. For them, maintaining eye contact can be similar to a sensory overload, almost as if someone has turned the volume up too loud on their visual input. As a result, avoiding eye contact becomes a necessary strategy for managing this overwhelming stream of sensory information.


Difficulty Processing Simultaneous Information

Simultaneous processing of verbal and nonverbal cues can be challenging for some autistic individuals. Although neurotypical people may effortlessly integrate spoken words and facial expressions, some autistic people may find the cognitive load of doing both too intense.

autistic woman struggling to process simultaneous information

Eye contact, in this case, may detract from their ability to focus on the conversation itself. Avoiding eye contact may actually enable them to listen better, which is counterintuitive to neurotypical people who believe someone who is not looking at them cannot possibly be listening.


Differences in Social Interaction and Communication

Autistic people often have their unique styles of communication and interaction that may differ from neurotypical norms. For some, this could mean that eye contact is not their preferred way of showing attentiveness or understanding in a conversation. They might use other nonverbal cues or express interest and empathy differently.


When it comes to understanding why some autistic individuals might avoid eye contact, it's important to be aware that their experiences are not grounded in disinterest or apathy, but rather in the unique way their brain processes information. Understanding these diverse perspectives is crucial in dismantling stereotypes and promoting empathy for autistic people.


Misconceptions and Stereotypes Around Autism and Eye Contact

In a world that often expects uniformity in social interactions, people with different interactions, such as those who avoid eye contact, can be misunderstood. This misunderstanding breeds several misconceptions and stereotypes about autistic people, most notably their ability or willingness to engage socially.

autistic adult neglecting to have an eye contact with his relative who is aggressively invading his space

One common misconception is that when autistic individuals avoid eye contact it means they are disinterested or aloof. However, as we've discussed earlier, eye contact can be overwhelming or distracting for some autistic individuals, and avoiding it can actually enhance their ability to focus on the conversation.


Another damaging stereotype is assuming that autistic individuals lacking eye contact suggests dishonesty or rudeness. This not only shows a misunderstanding of neurodiversity but also imposes neurotypical standards on autistic individuals, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy or alienation.


The impact of these stereotypes and misconceptions is far-reaching, leading to social exclusion and emotional distress for many autistic individuals. They underscore the need for empathy and acceptance, as well as a greater understanding of neurodiversity.


Tips and Strategies for Making Eye Contact

In light of understanding the nuances of autism and eye contact, it's helpful to explore practical strategies that can make social situations more inclusive and less stressful. Now that we have looked at the neurotypical and autistic perspectives on eye contact and dismantled some of the myths surrounding how autistic individuals view eye contact, let’s look at some ways autistic adults can navigate cultures where eye contact is highly respected.


Prepare for Social Interactions

Knowing that certain situations may demand more eye contact than you're comfortable with, it can be helpful to mentally prepare for these scenarios or have prepared responses when people question your eye contact.

autistic woman looking at herself in the mirror preparing for social interactions

If you feel comfortable communicating openly about this, it might help to explain your discomfort with eye contact to others. People are often understanding and accommodating once they know of your preferences or that you are actually trying hard to pay attention.


You could say something like, “I know that when I don’t make eye contact it’s sometimes interpreted as a lack of interest, but it actually helps me pay closer attention to what you are saying since I’m able to just focus on your words.”


Practice Selective Eye Contact

Instead of trying to maintain constant eye contact, consider making occasional eye contact at key moments in the conversation. If it sounds like your speaking partner is saying something important, then try to use eye contact strategically to demonstrate that you are paying attention to what matters the most.


Use Alternative Focus Points

Instead of looking directly into someone's eyes, you might choose to focus on their forehead, nose, mouth, or shoulder. This can often pass for eye contact without causing you discomfort as long as you glance away occasionally so the other person doesn’t get the uncomfortable sensation that you are “staring” at them.

autistic adult looking at the hand of her friend while having a conversation

The risk of doing this is that you miss out on the nonverbal cues people send, such as body language and facial expressions, but it’s better to focus on what someone is saying than to try to pick up all the nonverbal cues and miss the whole point of the conversation!


Conclusion

Eye contact, often perceived as a simple, natural part of communication, holds varying layers of complexity when viewed through the lens of neurodiversity. For neurotypical people, it's an effortless, unspoken rule of engagement. But for many autistic adults, it's a diverse sensory experience that may lead to behavior that differs significantly from societal expectations.


The experiences of autistic individuals can vary when it comes to eye contact, largely because of sensory overload, difficulty in processing simultaneous information, and unique styles of social interaction and communication. Misunderstandings and stereotypes surrounding eye contact among autistic individuals can lead to harmful assumptions and further exclusion.


In debunking these misconceptions, it's important to emphasize the neurodiverse perspective, asserting that eye contact, or the lack thereof, isn't a measure of engagement, honesty, or interest. It's a unique response to stimuli based on individual sensory experiences and information processing.


Appreciating neurodiversity means accepting that there are many ways of experiencing and interacting with the world. Understanding and respecting different experiences of eye contact is a critical step toward creating an inclusive society where every person, regardless of their neurotype, is respected and valued.

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