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Mar 24

Gaze Aversion: An Autistic Adaptation

Here is a wonderful new post that states what for me has long been glaringly obvious.

Encouraging Eye Contact May Disturb Autistic Kids’ Thinking

Terrific! A concise statement of what I have been thinking for quite some time now. Mother Nature doesn’t make mistakes. There is a reason for our behaviors. True, we can change them if we so choose, and, believe me, I have made many adjustments in mine. Gaze aversion is such a powerful instinct, however, that it obviously (to me) serves a deep function. As Stephen Mark Shore has put it, “I can either talk to you or I can look you in the eye. Which would you like me to do?”

“When trying to retrieve information from memory, or solve a complex problem, looking at someone’s face can interfere with the way the brain processes information relative to the task. This is, in part, because faces are such rich sources of information that capture our attention…”

Autistics capture and process way more information than neurotypicals, in my experience. So we don’t need a constant gaze. An occasional glance at a face gives us more information than we need about the emotional state of the person we’re with. Asking us to look into that face while trying to do other processing is like asking us to take a written test in a room where a live rock band is playing and light are flashing. It’s just impossibly distracting.

And, I might add, this isn’t just about kids. Many of us, as we gain wisdom and experience that come with aging, have adjusted our behavior in this realm, to use more eye contact in settings where that does not threaten to compromise our ability to process information. But, at least for me, gaze aversion comes on strongly if I am formulating a complex thought or engaging in any considerable amount of deep thinking. It’s not something I can (or want to) change.

 

 

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  1. A Quiet Week

    Thank you for this. We do not ask for eye contact in our family precisely because it is disruptive when one of us is working on a task or solving a problem. My husband in particular cannot “think and look” at the same time. His thoughts are complex and detailed so the trade off is absolutely worth it.

  2. Michael Forbes Wilcox

    Thank you, Quiet Week. The “Look Me In The Eye” demand by NTs is an unintended (presumably) power play. They surely don’t think that gaze and attention are directly related. But they seem to have an instinctive feeling that an averted glance shows disrespect or disinterest.

    I’ve noticed that when I’m in a roomful of autistic people, these NT social rules go out the window. People interrupt each other, monologue until interrupted, and don’t maintain eye contact, which is fine all around. We don’t have any difficulty gauging the pace of a conversation and doing turn-taking. It is relaxed, fun, sharing, and highly social. To NTs, it would probably appear to be pandemonium, but to me it feels natural. They don’t grok our hidden curriculum. 😉

  3. Michael Forbes Wilcox

    A Facebook friend writes, “NT’s aren’t that observant, okay? You wanna make one of us happy? Just look at our nose. We’ll never notice the diff.”

    This reminds me of a wonderful trick I was taught many years ago when I was an up-and-coming junior manager. I was trained as a public speaker, and we were videotaped and critiqued — hugely helpful! One of the things I was told was that people like to feel engaged with the speaker by having the speaker look at the audience, instead of seeming to be absorbed in what is on the podium or screen. But, the trainer acknowledged, the speaker might be distracted by making direct eye contact with someone in the audience (this was long before I knew I am autistic, and the advice was given to everyone in the class), so the trick was to look at a spot on the back wall just above the heads of the crowd, and it would appear to everyone in the audience that they were being looked at.

    This was very helpful advice, and I used it to good advantage for many years. As I became a more accomplished public speaker, I developed the ability to glance at individuals in the crowd without focusing on them, sometimes even acknowledging them by name. But I stick to my script (if it is a formal presentation), and don’t get distracted. It’s a matter of practice.

  4. Lori

    I was just at a conference for teachers (I was on the panel of autistics) and one of them asked me exactly why it was so hard for autistics to look people in the eye. I told her the same exact thing as SMS said, “I can look at you, or I can listen to you. Which do you prefer?”

  5. Colin Bowman

    I look into the middle-distance and avoid eye contact whenever I’m working to say something that depends upon and affirms what is autistic. In such moments, eye contact would draw me into compromising social perspectives, perspectives that the other person (my interactional partner of a moment) would reflexively come up with. So I avoid eye contact when it would prevent me holding myself together as an autistic-affirming person. When I’m with other autistic-affirming persons, I don’t need to avoid eye contact. Eye contact can allow you to be thrown by social forces which act to prevent you being autistic.

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Nicely put, Colin. Just curious, though; you say you “avoid eye contact” (which I do, too), but I’m not clear if you mean that as something that you are intentionally doing. For me, it is instinctive to look away while I am formulating thoughts, and it is eye contact that is the thing I have to be intentional about.

      Also, I think this may all be a matter of degree. Most people I know look “into the middle-distance” (as you so nicely put it) when they are thinking about what to say. I don’t think that is an autistic exclusive.

      1. Colin Bowman

        I agree Michael, nothing autistic-specific in this, in terms of the medicalised autism model. I support autistically developing children educationally (woodwork), and I work to a social model of the autistic. A collective’s organised social precludes some perspectives in sustaining itself; if an individual takes a critical degree of recourse to precluded perspectives their development becomes autistically characterised. Modulation (rather than a binary of eye-contact versus no-eye-contact) of eye-contact can reflect recourse to precluded perspective. I can’t do realtime intersubjective confrontation, as a rule: although I do in moments of managed meltdown; and generally I just dip the autistic clutch, voicing my autistic view of things (across socially precluded perspectives) as something running in parallel with a social view of things. Reduced eye-contact is then a way of avoiding the subjective intensity of realtime conflict. Intention and instinct/reflexivity is involved in this. Following such modulated eye-contact I stream my cognitive processing into producing perspective which can get to where I want to get, without having to go through realtime confrontation and conflict with others.
        Where any insight I get to across this introspection, becomes useful; is in viewing and understanding how students modulate their eye-contact with me. They will offer eye-contact to the extent that engagement with me does not obstruct them. They will reduce eye-contact to the extent that moving to where they intend to get, might risk realtime confrontation and and conflict with me. They too seek workarounds to avoid this realtime confrontation and conflict with me. To the extent that I can reconfigure so as to not obstruct them, and not pose risk of realtime confrontation and conflict, then they will tend to offer me fuller eye-contact. Student metldowns across what difficulties I pose students, also sees eye-contact varied.
        I see thought-formulation as very fundamental. Most of my thought-formulation is autistic, in the sense that it offers up perspectives going against the grain of those relied on by any contextualising social; and then, as with you, eye-contact modulation gets involved. When I’m reading and feeling and evaluating other people, I don’t much rely on looking at their eyes: I don’t much convince others that I’m trully social; so I don’t think I do much intentional eye-contacting.
        But I do touch people a lot; hand on the arm stuff. I think I do that to reassure others I’m attending and engaging, despite not being as much into eye-contact as others. Again, I do most of my important communicating in writing, across a keyboard; and no eye-contacting in that, in any conventional sense.

  1. The Art of Staying Focused | Michael Forbes Wilcox

    […] For more on this, see my post Gaze Aversion: An Autistic Adaptation. […]

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