I’m not a huge fan of eye contact. It’s painful for me, if I don’t know the person I’m interacting with. It’s a veritable minefield, chock-full of potential disasters, if I “do it wrong” — look at someone too long, don’t look at them long enough, “send the wrong signals”, etc.
You know the drill.
To say I hate making eye contact, would be an understatement. I loathe it. I don’t see why everybody has to do it, to begin with. I know the rest of the world is there, even if I’m not Looking It In The Eye. I can hear without staring at someone’s eyeballs, thank you very much. And it’s just so painful at times…
But still, I “do eye contact”. And it’s for totally self-centered reasons.
See, I’ve found the thing with non-autistic people is that they tend to be driven by unresolved trauma — particularly childhood trauma at the hands of irrational / explosive parents. There are so many non-autistic folks whose every action and reaction is driven by ingrained childhood trauma responses, that they literally think it’s “normal” for them to behave the way they do. After all, if everybody’s getting freaked out by certain ideas and behaviors… if everybody’s reacting in the same way to ideas and aspects of life that might be threats… if everybody’s jumping on the proverbial band wagon to overreact to their triggers, then that must be normal, right?
I’m not going judging anybody, I’m just making an observation. And considering my own “trauma load”, I can totally relate to others whose lives are so heavily dictated by stuff that happened and/or was done to them.
Okay, back to eye contact.
I’ve lived the last 26 years of my life with someone who has to make eye contact, or she feels immediately threatened. That sense of threat triggers a whole cascade of critical-thought-inhibiting stress hormones that prompt her to react and think about situations in ways that feel correct, but objectively speaking are counter-productive and (dare I say it?) damaging. The threat response kicks off before she can even think about it. It’s instinctive. And while her instincts may have saved her, when she was a little girl, they’ve not really helped her a whole lot in the course of her adult life.
Then again, maybe they have… Because everybody she deals with seems to behave the same way, and because her behavior is familiar to others, she’s wildly successful in a social sense — far moreso than I am.
Anyway, her need for eye contact seems to trace back to her early childhood, when her parents were really dangerous to be around. The main signal that they were about to get scary, was when they went silent and wouldn’t make eye contact. That signaled that they were about to become A Problem. They were about to become hazardous to her health.
If they were making eye contact and being verbal, that signaled that they were Safe.
If they weren’t making eye contact, and they weren’t talking, that signaled that they were Not Safe.
And if they weren’t Not Safe, some pretty terrible things could happen — the kinds of things that scar you for life and get ingrained into your wiring. I’ve been co-habitating with the effects of that sort of wiring for over a quarter of a century, and the more I understand it, the more inclined I am to accommodate my partner and make the eye contact she needs to feel safe.
Even if it isn’t always (or ever) comfortable for me.
I also keep this in mind in the world beyond the walls of my house. There are so, so many people who’ve been traumatized by silent parents who stop making eye contact right before they explode. We have no idea who those people are, and how many of them there are. And when we don’t make eye contact, that’s the rough experiential equivalent of demanding that Autistic people Do make eye contact. It’s painful. It’s frightening. And it stresses people out.
So, what’s the solution? I can’t speak for anyone else, but this works for me:
- Compassion for others I’m interacting with. Understanding that if they need eye contact, then they might have gone through some pretty rough stuff at the hands of people who stopped looking at them just before they started to beat the crap out of them.
- Accommodating them accordingly. Standing in a way that faces them, holding my posture in a way that communicates I’m friendly and I’m not going to attack them. Using prosody — exaggerating the “lilt” of my spoken language to calm them down, which it actually does.
- Accommodating myself. Looking intermittently at their eyes, but not enough to stress myself out… mostly focusing my gaze on parts of their face that are near their eyes, so they think I’m making eye contact, but I’m really not. Stimming in ways that are hidden, yet effective.
- Remembering — always remembering — that whatever triggers they’re dealing with, they may not recognize because they’re so commonplace and so “normal”. And as a result, they have practically no awareness of those triggers and the effects they have on people like me.
- Just hanging in there, till it’s over. No, it’s not pleasant. Yes, it can be pretty damn’ uncomfortable. But very little in my life is simple and straightforward and 100% pleasant, so this is no different from just going about my daily life. The effort is worth it, because it makes it possible for me to work and play and interact with the rest of the world and have the kind of life I want.
It’s not for everybody. But this works for me.
And again, it’s worth it.