Why are NTs so obsessed with eye contact?
By John Counsel
The irrational emotional dependence of Neurotypical people on maintaining eye contact during conversation is often incomprehensible to Aspies, who are regularly criticised and even verbally abused for not holding eye contact.
Some Aspies are even discriminated against in job interviews and other employment-related situations simply for breaking eye contact.
This important neurological difference is made even more challenging when people with Autism — including Aspies — have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyper-activity Disorder) as well.
In this article, my hope is that BOTH groups — Aspies and Neurotypicals — can begin to understand their very different perspectives, attitudes and behaviour regarding the relevance and importance of meaningful eye-contact with each other.
Eye Contact for Aspies
I try to be totally open… if I realise that I’m losing or avoiding eye contact, I quickly address it with the other person, usually something like this:
“Ah… I just realised I’m starting to look away while we’re talking. Just so you know, I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means I have up to ten times more visual signals coming into my brain than someone who’s neurotypical. My brain automatically tries to reduce that overload by subconsciously directing my eyes away from your face.
“I’m not ignoring you, I’m not bored or disinterested. I’m not avoiding being “honest” with you. I’m actually focused on what you’re SAYING so I can concentrate on the auditory signals instead of any distracting visual signals. It’s an automatic balancing act because I don’t actually listen with my EYES — despite the fact that so many people seem determined to listen and look with their mouths!
“So if you notice me looking away, it’s my brain trying to balance the flow of visual and auditory signals so I can understand what you’re SAYING and give you a considered response, okay?”
Or, if the NT person complains that I’m “not looking them in the eye”, or they’re being confrontational about it, I may choose to reduce the risk of stress by simply opening the Aspie InfoCards app on my phone and let them READ about it…
Here’s why this difference between Neurotypical people and Autistic people occurs…
This is cause…
… and this is the effect:
This is cause…
… and this is the effect!
Did these images help you to comprehend WHY people with Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism find it so difficult to hold eye contact with you while we’re trying to HEAR and PROCESS what you’re SAYING?
(PS: We don’t listen with our EYES.)
To see an analogy of what Neural Overload is like for most Aspies, click here.
Eye Contact for Neurotypicals
(This section is included to offer Aspie readers some indications of why eye contact is so important for Neurotypical people — I hope it helps!)
The link below is to an article in KidSpot magazine discussing a television program on Australia’s multicultural broadcaster, SBS-TV about the role of eye-contact in human relationships.
The importance of Eye Contact for Neurotypical people
SBS-TV Program “Look Me in the Eye!”
©2019 John Counsel. All rights reserved. Header image credit: KidSpot and SBS.
3 Replies to “Eye Contact”
I’m recently diagnosed autistic, female, middle age. Oddly, only until several years ago, I’d always thought I was NT–or at least, not autistic, despite feeling “different” since grade school. I never had an issue if anyone didn’t maintain eye contact with me. If someone was looking away when talking, fine with me. If I was talking, I’d be looking away sometimes anyways (to maintain focus on my thoughts).
What I think is really important, though, is SOME degree of eye contact to avoid looking submissive and vulnerable. For me, eye contact is a message of authority, confidence and assertiveness. What’s important is ME giving the eye contact, NOT the OTHER person giving me eye contact. I want them (NT or ND) to know I’m secure, alert, and to be taken seriously and not thought of as wussy. Words alone aren’t enough. NTs need to “read” me via my eye contact. As a result, men in the businessworld know not to F with me, and retail managers are always happy to refund or give me gift cards when I complain!!! Don’t assume all auties avoid eye contact. Some of us use it to establish ourselves. As an Alpha temperament, I rely on giving it to show I feel in charge.
Agreed, Lora. It underscores my position that Autistic people — including Aspies — are more recognisable for our differences than our simimilarities. 😀
Very interesting. May help explain why non-verbal people with autism who use Facilitated Communication often don’t look directly at the keyboard as they type. This leads to disbelief, fraud allegations, and discrimination by schools, employers, govt agencies. I always thought they were jusg goid at seeing peripherally but this ‘sensory’filtering’ makes good sense.