When I was young, my father would call my siblings and me into his home based “office” when we had done something wrong. We knew when we were summoned that we were in trouble. I can still remember, now more than four decades later, the feeling of dread when my father would call my name. I still remember standing before him, terrified, often angry and defiant, while he spoke to me, describing whatever it was that I’d done wrong. And I can still remember those dreaded words, “Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” The tone was not an invitation, but a demand, a demand for compliance, a demand for respect that I did not feel, a demand to do as I was being told. And so I did. I would pick a point near his eyes, without actually looking at him, sometimes it was at one of his large eyebrows, or maybe a single hair that grew from his ear, or the bridge of his nose, anywhere but into those steely blue, angry eyes. Those eyes that when I looked into them expressed pain and anger and contempt beyond anything words could convey. It was physically painful to look into his eyes. It was deeply, soul-wrenchingly, painful. It tugged at the core of my being and threatened to annihilate me. I learned, early on, to do anything BUT look him in the eye.
For years I’d forgotten about those moments of horror when I would get called into his office. And then I gave birth to a beautiful child. A child who would be diagnosed with autism and suddenly those awful words would be repeated by a great many and I felt that same terror all over again. But now people who knew about autism, professionals, people who devoted their lives to working with children on the spectrum were telling me of the importance of eye contact and oddly I found a way to compartmentalize my past, after all I am not Autistic, therefore my experience must not be relevant or similar to someone who is. And anyway, I only had trouble making eye contact in this one specific instance, it was unrelated.
I was told autistic children must be taught to look at those who are speaking to them because it was important they learn to “fit in”, and that this was what people expect and that those who do not learn to make eye contact will be thought suspicious. So I nodded my head and proceeded to demand that my child “look at me.” And then I read a post from an autistic person who wrote of how physically and emotionally painful it was to be told they must do this thing that hurt them. She said it was like looking into the depths of the other person’s soul and that often the pain she saw there was too overwhelming. And I identified. I understood what she meant. I had felt that way with this one person, my father, and it was exactly as she described and it made me stop and think about what I was asking of my child.
You see, I had only had this experience with one person, it was not universal, but her description reminded me of that pain I’d felt so long ago and I began to wonder, what if that experience that I had with one person was how it felt with everyone whose gaze I met? What would that be like? I knew then that it would be horrible to have those words said, over and over by so many, and I vowed to stop demanding this of my child. Whatever this might cost her in the long run, whatever others might conclude about her because she did not learn to “look” at others in their eyes, I decided it was worth it. I did not and do not want her to ever feel that terrible feeling of sadness, of pain, of overwhelm or whatever it was that made her avert her gaze to begin with.
Interestingly, my daughter often makes eye contact, though I do not for a moment believe this has anything to do with me or anything I did or didn’t do one way or the other. In fact my daughter wrote she likes looking at people’s eyes. So much so that we have agreed to work on a project based on this together. But for all who do not, who are overwhelmed, who feel physically ill or in pain, why would we demand this of them?