This obsession with eye contact

Eye contact avoidance issues

DSM V criteria for autism fills about 3 pages.
Among the first criteria is a list of possible behaviors which can occur under the heading of social interactions and abnormal social communication in body language. Along with several examples, poor eye contact is mentioned.
Poor eye contact was indeed listed as a symptom of autism in Kanner and Asperger’s original writings.
It seems that many diagnosing autism still think that people who can make eye contact can not possibly be autistic, regardless of age or experience.

I hear of others and of myself, ” she/he/they can’t be autistic, she/he/they make eye contact”.
Today’s autistic Children in ABA and other therapies are being forced to learn to make eye contact.
Once they have learned, are they cured of autism ? (using the same standard applied to me when people talk about my own autism- I can and do make eye contact when I choose to).
There seems to be a load of confusion on the issue of eye contact and autistic traits.

I would like to point out that a person who is autistic will remain autistic all their life. Neurological wiring does not change.

However (HOWEVER!!) many autistic people can and often do learn how to cover up or blend in so that our obvious traits are changed or hidden.

Hand flapping or hopping when chastised frequently, can be turned to hugging oneself, holding one’s hands in front or behind of one’s self or keeping hands hidden in pockets or rolled up in the hem of a shirt. (ask me how I know, I dare you!).
There are thousands of examples of one natural behavior being substituted for another, being perhaps less natural but more socially acceptable. This, of course is true for all people, not just autistic people. Learning social rules takes place for most of us. Some of us work much harder in the learning.

I want to emphasize that autistic behaviors themselves are not fixed, but just as mutable and adaptable in many cases as those of neurotypical/average/ non autistic people.

Refer to the term ‘masking’ as related to autism and read long and hard.

By the time one reaches adulthood, an autistic person may have traded defensive and self comforting behaviors and substituted others in many ways. Maybe we have even substituted new behaviors for other learned behaviors. As a 67 year old woman, I do not have many of the habits and traits that I had as a child. I have learned to substitute or hide those behaviors which brought down disapproval and punishment or ridicule. Because I have learned to perform social rituals does not make me less autistic, I just got better at performing them.
I will add that I was not able to observe and learn these things for the most part, but that I had to be told, I had to be taught, to be made so uncomfortable in my old ways that I was motivated to change them.
It is part of my memory to be able to recall where and when, and how I learned most of the things I know.

I distinctly remember being taught many rules of behavior for interacting with others. This spans from early childhood through my first job, onward and continues to today. I only wish that I had somebody in the early days to explain these things to me. It could have helped some of the struggles so much!

It has been a long, hard, confusing, frustrating, stressful and anxiety filled journey to come to today’s self understanding. People who are diagnosed when still quite young will have opportunities and information which eluded me. Part of me is regretful of my own lost opportunities, part of me is very glad that things will not continue “as they have been”.

My recent awareness of my own autism has ‘speeded up’ my understanding of the necessity for learning social rules and I have worked very hard in the past year and a half to learn more.
Now that I am aware of my deficiencies, I can go about seeking remedies.

I remember the terror and anxiety I felt at forcing myself to do these things as a child and even as an adult into my mid 30’s,40’s,50’s, and even now, sure that I would do them wrong and be punished or humiliate myself, bring shame or anger of others upon myself.
Making eye contact in a manner considered socially significant can be faked or learned over a period of time. Some autistic people may never have had trouble with this. Studies in 2016 showed that many autistic toddlers willingly made eye contact but did not seem to understand the social significance of such contact and missed the social cues related to eye contact from others.

I wanted to explain here that new information has replaced old ideas about how autism presents itself and to explain that many ideas about “what autism is” and “how autism looks” are not necessarily useful or true. It is great to be living in a time when better understanding is being uncovered and utilized for our (autistic people’s) benefit or aid. This blog is my attempt to perhaps hurry it along.

Feeling hopeful

6 thoughts on “This obsession with eye contact

  1. Wonderful post. You said: “My recent awareness of my own autism has ‘speeded up’ my understanding of the necessity for learning social rules and I have worked very hard in the past year and a half to learn more.
    Now that I am aware of my deficiencies, I can go about seeking remedies.” Can you possibly list some resources that you have found particularly helpful, whether online or in book form? Also, which online support groups have you found most helpful (with a good number of older female Aspergians to chat with?). I’m really enjoying your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your compliment and I am glad you are finding the blog useful. I try not to name names or post links to specific sites or groups for many reasons. An internet search for social rules, good manners, autistic social skills, or the like will turn up many good reads. A search for autistic groups likewise will turn up many useful forums. I have no way to know which ones will turn out good for anybody but me. Try searching various google groups, yahoo groups, facebook, twitter, or other social media groups using such tags as “older autistic women” Older women with Aspergers” perhaps? I will say that if you don’t find a group right after you join it, don’t feel guilty about leaving and finding another more to your taste or interests. There are so many autistic groups on the internet now I find it simply amazing. The internet could be one of the most wonderful things ever to happen to autistic people.


  3. There’s a woman who has degrees in and books about autism who has mentioned that equally, there are those on the spectrum who are at the other end of the body communication bell curve. These folks can have TOO much eye contact. Or as you mentioned, those of us who are older who have been “trained” into it. Either way, it’s frustrating to be invalidated by those who are ignorant of how wide the spectrum is.


  4. I still struggle with eye contact. It makes me nervous because I never know how long to hold a glance or gaze. I never know where to look, exactly. I guess it follows that my nervousness is a turn off for NTs, in conversation and socializing. People usually begin to act uncomfortable and want to end the conversation.
    If only there were behavioral health classes for adult autists where we could learn and practice social skills in a non-anxiety-provoking setting.


    1. I agree about the classes for adults. I tend to make people nervous too, although there are many who when I say I’m “a bit shy” (because I don’t disclose) say they can’t tell. But they could just be being nice. I wish there were more or any resources for us besides Zoom get togethers and FB groups. Although the groups are a help, they can’t truly assist me with how to socialize properly.


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