I can make eye contact with you or listen to you, not both!

Eye contact is a key social cue in society, it can show your engaged, confident and even trustworthy – supposedly.
But what if you struggle with social cues?
For a lot of Autistic folks (including my sons and I), eye contact can feel invasive, distracting, and confusing.
Here’s why:
  • Eye contact is personal and so it can feel vulnerable to look someone in the eye. When you feel insecure with others, it feels more safe to look away.

  • If you have sensory processing issues, it makes it harder to simultaneously make eye contact and listen. So we choose listening and divert our eyes. I find closing my eyes also helps me stay calm in a visually busy setting, and helps me listen much better.

  • We know eye contact is important in society but it can be confusing to know how much eye contact is appropriate. A great strategy for this is to look just above someones eyes or make eye contact for a few seconds and then look away again.

  • For some people it can also be physically painful to make eye contact and cause dizziness and headaches.
I use a style of self-advocacy I call a “social disclaimer” to help people understand why I avoid eye contact. It helps eliminate any awkwardness in the moment. It sounds something like this.
“By the way, if it looks like I’m not paying attention. It’s because I can listen much better when I focus on hearing instead of seeing. Make sense?”
When they express they’re okay with this, the conversation may continue. Both of your needs are met and you’re more at ease with each other. No need to mask by forcing eye-contact that causes more problems than it solves.
So next time you engage with someone who isn’t making eye contact, don’t make assumptions as to why or question it. Just go with the flow, and clarify to make sure they’re listening. Ask for their feedback on what you’re saying.
You’ll likely be touched by just how closely we’re paying attention.
Can you relate to this?
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