Eye contact

Why do so many of us on the autistic spectrum have trouble making eye contact?  Lack of eye contact seems to be one of the traits most often named as going along with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.  Maybe that’s because eye contact is such an automatic thing for most people, they notice when it’s missing or brief, even in a young child.

Think of how often people attach significance to eye contact or its absence:  “I could see it in his eyes.”  “She couldn’t even look me in the eye when she told me.”  “He looked nervous; his eyes were constantly darting back and forth.”  These sorts of conclusions aren’t always right, particularly with an autistic person, because it’s very possible to be sending out a signal you don’t mean to without realizing it.  Someone might think I am looking down because I’m embarrassed by what I’m trying to say, when I’m actually just trying to concentrate on what I’m saying.

This is just a guess, but I don’t think that things like eye contact or body language are innate, because it is possible to learn them and improve throughout your life; it’s just that learning to make “normal” eye contact usually seems to take a lot more work for autistics than for others, and it often needs to be a conscious effort rather than something that we absorb automatically.

But what is it about the way our brains are wired that causes such a difference?  One theory comes from observations of brain activity in both autistic and non-autistic people as they performed a task involving face recognition.  Each hemisphere of the brain has a bundle of neurons deep inside it called the amygdala, and several studies have indicated that these parts of the brain behave differently in autistics than they do in non-autistics.

Here’s where it gets confusing.  I was all set to explain how experiments showed activity in the amygdalae for non-autistic people when they looked at human face to identify it or tried to read its emotions, while autistics showed little or no activity in the amygdalae.  That’s what a study in 2000 found.

But then I found a 2009 paper that reported the exact opposite!  This study concluded that there was actually more activity in the amygdalae of an autistic brain than there tended to be in a non-autistic brain.  When it comes to how the brain works, there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.

But anyway, the theory I’d heard before was that, for whatever reason, the part of the brain that most people use to process human faces as a special category of information doesn’t operate the same way in an autistic person.  Because of this, faces are processed the same way anything else is– a collection of visual information without any special “markers.”

So maybe autistics don’t tend to make eye contact because our brains don’t “latch on” to human faces as different or more significant than their surroundings in the way that neurotypical brains do.

When I heard this explanation, I thought it was interesting, but something about it didn’t seem quite right.  It wasn’t until I saw an ABC news segment about a remarkable girl named Carly Fleischmann that I was able to put it into words.

Carly is a teenage girl from Canada. She is a non-verbal autistic, which means that she does not speak.  From the time she was young, she would engage in distressing behavior like shaking, screaming, or making noises, and it appeared to others that she wasn’t aware of her surroundings.  For years, her family was told that she was severely mentally retarded and would never be able to communicate or learn to advance beyond the abilities of a young child, but they kept on working with her day after day.

One day after Carly turned 11, she sat down at a computer and painstakingly typed the words “HURT” and “HELP,” words she had never been specifically taught.  Little by little, she continued to write.  Carly’s writing has revealed that she is a bright young girl, with her own personality, favorite things, dreams, and sense of humor like any other person.

She has a gift of being able to put her experiences with autism into words.  In some of her writing, Carly has explained the behavior that seemed so troubling and confusing to others.  Stims like shaking or making noises are a way of dealing with persistent sensations that are painful or overwhelming.  “It’s a way for us to drown out all sensory input that overloads us all at once,” she explains.  “We create output to block out input.”

Here are a few of Carly’s comments on the topic of autism and eye contact:

“Our brains are wired differently.  We take in many sounds and conversations at once.  I take over a thousand pictures of a person’s face when I look at them.  That’s why we have a hard time looking at people.”

That really makes sense to me.  Maybe it’s not that autistics see nothing remarkable in a human face, it’s that we see too much to handle there!  Whether the physical response of the brain is hyperactivity or a shift to using a different part of the brain, it could be difficult to look at faces because it’s an information overload.

I’m not trying to say that what I experience with Asperger’s is the same as what Carly experiences.  She has written about feeling like there are ants crawling all over her or feeling like she is about to explode, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to live with those sensations. Seeing the story about Carly reminded me of how many things I take for granted, especially the ability to tell others when I am struggling with something.  Carly had to work very hard for very long just to communicate that she was hurting.

But if autism is a spectrum disorder, maybe it is a case of sensitivity to external input being behind a lot of our struggles– it’s just that the volume knob is turned much further up for some people than for others.

One of the things I experience when I try to look at a person’s face is that it makes me more self-conscious about the look on my own face.  I know that they are also looking at me. I begin to see their reactions to me in their face, and I start thinking about whether my face is giving off the right signals.

It becomes like an echo chamber of facial expressions.  There are a lot of times when I am thinking about something and look at my mother’s face.  She notices that I am frowning or that I look concerned, and so her face begins to look concerned too.  Then I start to worry that she is frowning because of something I am doing, and it goes on until one of us laughs or says something.

For this to happen with a family member is fine, because we can explain it and laugh about it.  It’s a lot more awkward if it happens with someone out in public (especially a stranger).  Some friends have told me that they like to people-watch.  I can appreciate that, but it can make me anxious if someone turns and looks at me.  Maybe they won’t appreciate being watched!

Thinking about making eye contact can also make me lose track of other aspects of the conversation like my tone of voice (leading to a sing-song, monotone, or rushed effect) or the words I’m trying to say (leading to a long pause or accidentally filling in whatever word is stuck in my mind, usually something the other person just said!  That’s embarrassing).

I actually don’t notice any difficulty looking at people’s faces on TV or in movies, because I know they can’t react to me.  Actors also practice their facial expressions, so usually everything they communicate is intentionally sending a message, something that’s not the case in real life.  In real life, it can be just as important to know what to ignore as it is to know what not to miss.

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