Why I Suck at Eye Contact

Content note: This post talks frankly about ableism in a way that might induce anxiety in autistic readers.

Recently, I started a new job. I haven’t told anyone there that I’m trans or on the autism spectrum. I don’t like to have those conversations unless I feel safe and know I won’t be treated like an oddity or less of a person. Because I usually don’t talk about these identities of mine in public, I often hear things I don’t care for.

At this new job, I overheard a conversation between two coworkers where they were talking about a customer they didn’t like. One of them said, “Isn’t making eye contact just, like, basic human decency?”

And the other one said, “You’d think so, but…”

And I stood nearby, seething and feeling attacked, even though I knew they weren’t trying to insult me. Attitudes like this are the reason why I’ve made a lifelong effort to train myself to make eye contact with people, even though it’s an incredibly uncomfortable experience for me. After all, people will think I’m a jerk who doesn’t respect them if I don’t meet their gaze with my own. I resent this fact deeply. I hate that I have to go about my life constantly making myself uncomfortable and making an exhausting effort to go against my own instincts so people will like me.

Of course, some people might say, “Well, you don’t have to make everybody like you anyway. Just be yourself! Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind!” With all due respect (and I mean that sincerely; not trying to be a sarcastic dick here), I think y’all are missing the point. Other people need to like me if I want to move upward in my career and get by in the world. That’s just the way things are. Unfortunately, it’s impractical to prioritize my own comfort over other people’s opinions a lot of the time. I wish it weren’t that way, but it is.

Other autistic people have talked about how eye contact is uncomfortable for them because it feels very overwhelming. I also feel that way, and I’d like to expand on just why it makes me so uncomfortable. I only speak for myself here, of course; not every autistic person is going to feel the same way I do, and sometimes someone might not have many problems with eye contact at all. This is just the way I see things.

You’ve heard that expression that “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” right? I really feel like that’s true. For me, eye contact feels very intimate and even confrontational sometimes. Looking into someone’s eyes and seeing all of the consciousness behind them, the presence in their brain that means they’re alive and human and feeling, is incredibly overwhelming. For this reason, my instinctual reaction to eye contact is to look away quickly. I feel like it’s rude to look that deep into someone’s personhood for too long, especially if I don’t know them well. They deserve to be able to keep some part of them for themselves. I don’t have any right to gaze too long into who they are.They should be able to have their space and boundaries respected.

But sometimes, people get mad or uncomfortable when I do what I perceive as keeping a respectful distance. They want me to do what feels like an intimate, invasive act. And the thing is, the invasiveness goes both ways. Not only do I feel like I’m invading their space, but it feels like they’re pushing themselves into mine. It feels like being unexpectedly hugged when I don’t want to be touched. I get this horrible “get out get out get out” kind of feeling.

But I force myself to do it. I force myself to allow my mental space to be invaded so the other person’s feelings won’t be hurt and they won’t think I’m a jerk. An allistic friend of mine once told me that for non-autistic people, eye contact can feel reassuring. It boggled my mind. I have no idea how someone can feel that way. But I want to reassure other people and make them comfortable, so I do this thing that feels completely unnatural to me. This way I don’t upset them, and this way they don’t think ill of me. And I get so angry sometimes that I have to do this in order to get by in the world.

I don’t always do it, of course. Just doing it when I’m at work is bad enough. A lot of the time I’ll drop my guard and allow myself not to look at the cashier at the grocery store for too long. I’m also fortunate enough to live with roommates who are all either autistic or familiar enough with autistic issues that they aren’t insulted when I stare at a wall during a conversation instead of looking at their faces. Even with my friends, eye contact can feel exhausting and overwhelming. It’s good to be able to relax at home and behave in a way that feels more natural to me.

But when I run LGBT events, I will flip on my “try to act neurotypical” switch and force myself to make eye contact with my group members. I want them to feel welcomed and reassured and comfortable, after all. I can’t expect every single one of them to be familiar with autistic issues, and in the majority of cases, they won’t be. I have to sacrifice my own comfort for the sake of my groups, or at least I feel like I have to. I guess I could just drop all my pretenses and act as autistic as I want to and expect them to just get over it, the way the world seems to expect me to “just get over” being autistic. But it’s already anxiety-inducing enough for me to just say that I’m autistic sometimes or flap my hands in front of other people. Completely dropping all of my pretenses and behaving the way that I naturally do in front of strangers is an idea that genuinely frightens me.

The worst part sometimes is that even when I’m trying really hard to make eye contact the “normal” way, I know I’m not as good at it as the neurotypical person I’m talking to. They will look at me with this steady gaze that seems natural and comfortable, and I will look at them for as long as I can and then look away for just a moment, to get my bearings, and then I’ll look back. And they will still be looking at me with this steady, natural gaze that makes me feel pinned and trapped. And I wonder, “How is this so easy for you?” Why is it that I have to try so hard to do this thing that’s so effortless for other people? Why are so many people so fragile that my natural behavior makes them feel uncomfortable and insulted? When do I get to feel comfortable? Why isn’t the world built to accommodate people like me?

My coworkers aren’t the only ones who just expect eye contact and have no idea why it would be difficult for some people. Recently, Charlie Cox, who plays the title character in Daredevil, talked about how playing a blind character caused him to “screw up” an audition for Star Wars. He said that after two years of playing Daredevil, he’s gotten so used to not making eye contact with people that the casting director stopped during his audition and asked him, “Why aren’t you looking at me?” I’ll be honest: this article gives me so much anxiety. It confirms all of my worst fears about needing to appease people in power who don’t understand that making eye contact isn’t just “basic human decency.” Sometimes people don’t seem to understand why so many autistic people don’t take the label “high-functioning” as a compliment, or why I would identify as disabled when I can pass as normal sometimes. I “just have Asperger’s,” right? I don’t have it nearly as bad as those other autistic people who can’t present themselves in a way that makes neurotypicals comfortable, right? I don’t have much to complain about, right?

And it’s true that there are probably other autistic people out there who struggle more profoundly than I do. But I have a right to talk about my own struggles, and my doing so doesn’t detract from the struggles of other people. And the fact is, the term “high-functioning” isn’t applied very fairly. It’s usually used for people who aren’t completely nonverbal, or for people who, again, are able to pass as normal sometimes. It doesn’t take into account the fact that sometimes I go nonverbal when I’m really stressed out. It doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes I get so incapacitated by my sensory issues that I have to go in my room and turn off all the lights and lay in my bed and try my best to decompress, even though I can still hear my roommates talking through the walls and the sound of a train in the distance. And it doesn’t acknowledge that there’s probably a nonverbal person out there who is much more functional than I am sometimes, whether it’s because their sensory issues aren’t as bad or because they don’t have as many mental illnesses as I do.

The fact is that I am disabled. I subscribe to the social model rather than the medical model of disability. I do have impairments that don’t necessarily have much to do with the society around me, like the sensory issues that make my eyes hurt a lot in the sunlight or make my head feel like it’s exploding when a loud sound happens nearby. But what makes me disabled is the ableist society around me. I am not able to do all the things I want to do because I have to put a lot of effort into suppressing my natural behavior in order to get by in the world. And this drains the energy that I could be using to do the things I love. And I can’t help but feel like I would be able to get so much more done if I didn’t have to put all this time and effort into behaving in an unnatural way. I feel like I’d be able to do more if I didn’t have to focus so hard on making neurotypical people comfortable.

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