(originally published in Spanish, April 24, 2014)
Autistic people hear this phrase over and over again. So much so, that John Elder Robinson chose it as the title of his autobiography. He found out he is autistic when he was 40 years old and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Before dedicating himself to autism advocacy and high-end car restoration, he was, among other things, the designer of special effect guitars for the band KISS.
Reading blogs and columns written by autistic adults, you will often find the same complaint: “Why do you force me to look at you in the eye?” This was interesting to me because, as far as I understand, when a behavior or characteristic occurs very commonly in a population that is so dispersed, there has to be some biological basis (note: I have a PhD in life sciences, and worked in research in that field for over 15 years). A more pertinent question is: why do non-autistic people need to look at people in the eye?
Non-autistic people “read” emotions when we look into someone’s eyes. We can know if the person is believing what we’re saying, if they’re happy, sad, angry, getting bored, etc. This has physiological reason: our pupils become enlarged if we are happy or excited, but decrease in size if we’re angry. We use our eyes to flirt, and this can also be unconscious: heterosexual men consider women more attractive if their pupils look larger. And it’s the same for heterosexual women assessing men.
Socially, it all depends on the culture. In Europe, the US and many other countries, looking at someone in the eye means, in most cases, that you’re paying attention, that you’re trustworthy and that you are respecting the person you’re speaking with. But in other countries and cultures, looking directly in the eye can mean aggression, impertinence, or disrespect, especially if the person you’re looking at is your “superior,” socioeconomically speaking. In other places, it would be scandalous for men and women to look at each other in the eye.
Anyway, in countries where we it is customary to look at others in the eye, it is estimated that we look in the other person’s eyes almost half the time (43%). Second in line are the lips (12%, a total of 56% between eyes and lips). We use the eyes to describe others’ emotions, or even their personality.
Reading about this, I found a great phrase, in a column that had nothing to do with autism, but was focused on non-verbal communication. It was written by a woman who provides consulting services on corporate communication (“The Politics of Eye Contact: A Gender Perspective”, by Audrey Nelson). The phrase reads:
Why would we want to look into another’s eyes if not to assess what that person is feeling?
Many autistic people have stated very clearly that sustaining visual contact bothers them and doesn’t provide them with anything. They are not using the eyes to “read” other people’s emotions. As it happens in many other areas, we, the non-autistic people, need to accept that it is possible that other people, in this case autistic people, don’t “function” in the exact same way we do. At the very least, we should grant them the same tolerance and understanding we give people from other cultures, where it is rude to look at people in the eye.
John Elder Robinson, as I mentioned above, felt bullied with that phrase. Amy Sequenzia, a non-speaking autistic advocate, who is an amazing writer, says she feels autistic people who don’t look at people in the eye are assumed by non-autistic people to be “low functioning” or as having intellectual disability. Way too many autistic people are trained to look at people in the eye, and Sequenzia believes that only produces anxiety. Lydia Brown, another autistic adult, who advocates for the rights of disabled people, asks us to just stop. Another autistic person said:
“…just because I am not making eye contact with you does not mean that I am not listening to you or paying attention to you. I can concentrate better not having to keep eye contact at the same time. I tell people, ‘You have a choice. Do you want a conversation or do you want eye contact? You will not get both unless I am comfortable with you and do not have to concentrate so much on the eye contact’.”
Researchers have been studying the reasons behind the lack of eye contact in autistic people. A study performed at Vanderbilt University showed that autistic children had issues processing visual and auditory information simultaneously. That could mean that for some autistic people it is difficult and stressful to hear and look at a person at the same time. One of the researchers, Dr. Camarata, commented “It is like they are watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, the auditory and visual signals do not match in their brains.”
Previous studies suggested other reasons, such as the finding by researchers at the University of Wisconsin that the amygdala of autistic people is activated when they establish eye contact. This could imply that eye contact is perceived as a threat, since the amygdala is where we sense fear. Another study, at Emory University evaluated the frequency at which babies made eye contact. They saw that the frequency at which babies who were later diagnosed with autism looked into the eyes of people decreased with time. On the contrary, the frequency increased in babies who were not diagnosed with autism later on.
A professor at the University of Illinois said that her autistic students looked confused and anxious when they were sustaining visual contact. Others would pretend to look at her in the eye, but later on told her they were looking at something near her eyes (such as light reflecting on her glasses). Another told her he was analyzing the size of her pupils. She considers that it also depends on the person’s mood and that, if a student is relaxed, it is more likely that she or he will look at her in the eyes than if she or he is stressed out. She was saying that only very few autistic students have told her that visual contact helps them receive or share messages, and most consider they are not good at “reading” those messages.
One of the myths with visual contact is that unless you keep eye contact, you are not paying attention. But many teachers have seen that even when [autistic] students seem to be “spacing out”—looking at the ceiling, the window, or something other than at the teacher, the students can repeat what they heard during the lecture, and put it into practice. This has happened with Marisol: her teachers have told us that sometimes, when they are doing math exercises (basic math, she’s 5), as a group, she seems no to pay attention at all. Later, she can answer similar problems, alone, and without making mistakes. I saw her in a similar situation during her diagnostic evaluation: she was slowly rocking herself, looking at the ceiling or the walls, and then would point at the correct answer.
And talking about Marisol… every so often we talk to someone, be it from the school district, or the government office that provides services to people with developmental disabilities, and they ask: What goals do you have for your child? Or even: What does your child want? Since Marisol is 5, we are her proxies, but if she were older the question would be: What do you need to enjoy a full life? This answer helps create a development plan, which can be a working plan for the school, with goals and deadlines. The goals have to be measurable, and many times it reads something like: “so-and-so will look at his or her speaking partner a given percent of the time, or a given amount of times.” This plan at the school is called Individualized Education Program or IEP. At some point, eye contact was a goal in Marisol’s plan. However, they saw it was not attainable, Marisol was simply not looking at people in the eyes. At that point, they changed it to having her “orient” herself toward the person that was talking to her, no longer caring what exactly she was looking at. It didn’t work very well either. Now, it’s completely off her IEP and will remain that way.
Why don’t want it to be in her IEP? First of all, I’m completely convinced this is biological and that is highly possible that it is extremely bothersome for her. Because I don’t believe she benefits from eye contact. In fact, it is very possible that trying to look at people and listening to them at the same time implies an effort and concentration that probably exhausts her and decreases her capacity to perform a given task correctly. And because the word is changing in a hurry, and I don’t believe that, in the future, anybody will need to look at other people in the eye to be successful.
Where do I get this idea from? I work at a very prestigious university, with students and staff from virtually all over the world. The largest minority comes from Asia. It is common for me to enter an elevator, say “hi,” and receive no answer at all—no “hi,” no nods, no quick look at me—nothing. Many people from Asia, or other countries/regions of the world, or from some populations within the US, don’t look at me in the eye. And that is not a deal breaker. The social aspect, the “demand” for this “social skill” is decreasing as we get used to interact with people that doesn’t do it for cultural or other reasons. It is obvious that it doesn’t affect their performance or opportunities—after all, all those people I see in the elevator, the bus stop or in the cafeteria, are studying or working in an excellent university.
Another good trend is that faculty at my university, and many others, are working toward using “universal design for learning” and inclusive teaching. The idea is that there are differences not just between autistic and non-autistic people, people with a disability and people without. “Regular” people are tremendously varied in their learning styles. I’ve taken several courses and workshops on this topic, and they truly opened my eyes. I had been recommended in the past to avoid red and green on slides or research posters, in case there is a color-blind person in the audience. But now we are going beyond that. There are people who learn best by listening to a lecture, some prefer to read, some need hands-on experience. And professors that really want to have their message reach everybody, need to use all types of media. That means offering the same information in different formats, so that students can use whatever works best for them.
Within this trend, and required by law, is the support and acceptance of people with some disability. For example, if a student requires a service dog, the dog can go to class. If someone needs a computer to be able to interact in class, that is doable. There are a thousand possibilities and supports available. Among them, it is to really accept that some people will not sustain visual contact and that it doesn’t mean anything negative. We just need to get over our non-autistic (allistic) need for eye contact.