“Look At Me”

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?

Eye Contact

33 responses to ““Look At Me”

  1. Yes, Emma makes eye contact all the time. I remember her looking at the aspen trees and saying, “Look! Eyes!” because the bark had markings like eyes where branches use to grow. All the therapists who predicted that she would be mainstreamed by her fifth birthday cited her great eye contact as an indication that she would progress swiftly with speech and language, saying things like, “you can’t teach that kind of eye contact.”

    As far as I can tell there is no correlation between eye contact and speech or comprehension. When Emma is working with Soma, she is often looking away from her, seemingly oblivious to what she is saying to her. Yet, when a question is posed, she types out a perfectly composed response that shows she was 100% aware of everything Soma was teaching her: Mesopotamian temples, poetry, meteorology. Emma makes eye contact when she feels like it. And that feels just right to me.

    • There’s a famous untitled photograph by Herbert Bayer, who, ironically, was a close friend of my grandfather’s (Emma’s great grandfather)
      http://www.behance.net/gallery/Essay-on-the-work-and-life-of-Herbert-Bayer/4655755 (if you go to the link it’s the 4th photo featured in the article that also mentions grandfather) of a grove of Aspen trees with eyes superimposed on the photograph.
      I love that she made that connection!

    • I tell anyone willing to listen that, if I *appear* to be paying close attention to you, then in reality I probably have not heard a single word you said. If, however, my eyes are focused on a neutral object the whole time, chances are I am really listening very intently. I actually can’t focus on two senses at a time, so I basically listen by shutting down sight.

  2. I find it easier to look at women than at men. When I’m in the mood, I really do enjoy looking deep into the eyes of my husband and son. But otherwise, I find it extremely uncomfortable. I compensate by looking at foreheads or just between the eyes. I look at mouths a lot, so much so that I’m a pretty good lip reader.

    My son also makes eye contact, when he feels like it, which confuses people because they say, “but how can he be Autistic?” I tell them to throw out all the misconceptions they’ve ever heard about Autism and just look at us.

  3. I find it easier to look at women than at men. When I’m in the mood, I really do enjoy looking deep into the eyes of my husband and son. But otherwise, I find it extremely uncomfortable. I compensate by looking at foreheads or just between the eyes. I look at mouths a lot, so much so that I’m a pretty good lip reader.

    My son also makes eye contact, when he feels like it, which confuses people because they say, “but how can he be Autistic?” I tell them to throw out all the misconceptions they’ve ever heard about Autism and just look at us.

    • Good for you for not demanding it of him and for advising others to throw out all their misconceptions!

    • I always had difficulty with eye contact …. Although eyes in themselves i found fascinating…. I also later realised that in order to cope i would focus on mouths so did a little lip reading too. If i really want to listen i actually close my eyes..When i saw the same in zack I encouraged him to focus on some other part of the face.. Tip of the nose is socially acceptable in most circumstances. Still hoping for a society that recognises and accepts autism!!

  4. 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.

    Yes. And I get tunnel vision and my ears roar and the world spins. But that’s pretty much like what it feels for others to demand I look them in the eye.

    If I hear a parent yelling at a kid, “LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!” I have to leave the room or I’ll tear the parent a new one over it and I know that usually just makes it worse for the kid.

    I will make eye contact with those I trust when I feel safe and I don’t have to concentrate on anything. Else, even if you think I’m looking you in the eye, I’m probably looking at your nose or mouth, and the more upset/unsafe I feel, the further away from your eyes I’ll look until I’m staring off at the air beside your head (I’ve made people who had a tendency to invade my personal space think there was someone standing behind them because if you invade my personal space I can’t do eye contact comfortably).

    • Actually just reading that sentence all in caps made me look away! Hoping this becomes a matter of common knowledge and it will no longer be something that even needs to be talked about.

    • Actually, anger, which I’m likely to feel at people invading my space, is the one thing that gets me making natural eye contact. I apparently use angry eye contact well enough to severely intimidate people quite a bit larger than me on occasion. What I can’t fathom is how this lethal weapon of hate, which is all eye contact can ever be to me, has come to be viewed as a necessity and proof of respect. Anywhere else in the animal kingdom, and in quite a few human cultures, it is indeed viewed as a direct threat—cats have been shown to make eye contact with their prey before making a kill, apes are notorious for becoming violent in response to direct eye contact, and so on.

      There are a few occasions where I get kind of hypnotized by the eye itself as an object of physical beauty ( happens more often with animals or photographs, but theoretically possible with a human), but in that case it feels totally disconnected from the person, so isn’t really true “eye contact” in the usual sense.

      • A number of people have said this too. One described looking at another person’s eyes as an act of aggression so powerful it bled into everything the person was saying, to the point that he was often accused of being paranoid, because so often he believed the things being said were aggressive too, even when the person expressed surprise that he was taking things that way.

  5. Yep. We never required any eye contact from Nathan. We can tell if he is paying attention or not from his body language. Interestingly, once he started to integrate his senses, he started making eye contact on his own. Eye contact is such a non-issue with us that I forgot to mention to his teachers that he should never be asked to make eye contact. Then I read on their newsletter that one of their circle time activities was to practice shaking their friend’s hand and looking them in the eye while they said hello. I sent out an email saying that it is fine if Nathan participates in this activity, but that he is not required to look anyone in the eye. Additionally, I asked that they not praise him when he makes good eye contact….because you get praised when you do something “right”, so following that logic, NOT looking someone in the eye must be “wrong”. All his teachers were completely on board with this (thankfully).

  6. Ariane, this post literally gave me chills, both for what you endured, and what we so often ask of our children. The other day I said your daughter was brave- I think you are too. Beautiful post.

  7. This reminds me of a post I wrote back in August of 2012… http://autismitsallinthefamily.blogspot.com/2012/08/i-dont-want-to-change.html

    The reaction is very visceral. Instinctual. And also uncontrollable. I’m so glad that you no longer demand eye contact. I have never asked it of my children and I make sure that their teachers each year don’t demand it either.

    • Oh I loved that post of yours! Thanks for leaving the link. It’s important and I wished I’d known and made the connection sooner.

    • “Who am I hurting if I don’t look you in the eye the first instant I meet you? Why is it so important? ”
      I totally agree to this. people will get hung up on the ‘eye looking business’ when actually what they want you to do, is listening.

  8. i have personally troubles maintaining I contact with people also, I think moreso when I speak than when I listen, but have found my son definitively listens better when he isn’t forced to be looking into someone’s eyes.
    the first book I read about autism was JE Robison’s “look me in the eye”..
    I was disappointed by one of his teachers lately who is fully aware of his autism but still can’t make abstraction from how people expect children to act when they talk to them. I made a comic about it, because I believe when you force him to look while he is listening, you basically deviate his attention to just that : looking into the eye. rather than listening. makes no sense to me. (http://suburpcomix.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/well-meaning-still-getting-it-wrong/)

    • Yeah, this is something countless people have said, how can I concentrate and listen if I’m being forced to look at you. I get it, now. And interestingly enough have become much more aware of how often I don’t like looking at someone, especially if they are discussing anything that is very distressing or emotionally loaded.

  9. This summer I finally met the person how to be successful with autism books warn you about. My whole life only heath care providers ever cared if I looked at them it seemed. Never not gotten a job I interviewed for so the whole notion that someone might trust you less if you didn’t look at them has seem liked hogwash and then the lady who lived next to the friend where my dog had to stay when I was sick met you and informed me friend I had lived a whole secret and shocking life my friend didn’t suspect based on my lack of eye contact and the luggage tag on the bag I used for my dog. The airline had called me a Mrs.

    So little had my lack of eye contact been an issue even when I expected to I actually started to ask people why it wasn’t. Several people claimed there was something else about me they couldn’t articulate that made it a non-issue.

    It’s not like it never comes up as I said health care people almost always ask for it or at the very least ask why you are not looking at them but they don’t really count.

    If it is taking a lot to just be in a room and to listen and to hopefully reply why is it hard for anyone to understand that demanding that one more thing is just stupid? I can look at trusted people.

    I was very stressed during my last operations and even I found my lack of eye contact frustrating then because I wasn’t getting much higher than the bottom of someone’s tie which made it hard to find out some things about the people who would be handling me when I was konked right out but it was a total impossibility.

    I will say I didn’t get any grief when they asked why I didn’t look at them and I said I was autistic. I only had to say it once. I do suspect that’s because they also had it in big letters on lots of pieces of paper that they not so subtly showed each other as they came in but it’s still better than being asked by a dozen people.

    If I look right into someone’s eyes it is an accident or I trust them a lot or the third possibility is I guess they are a kid. Children look at you so intently that for some of them it almost seems disrespectful not to let them find out all of what they are looking at you for. I assume for some of them that has to be in the eyes as I have had toddlers crawl under my head for a look and so on so I do try if a kid is in that mode to give them what they need.

  10. We tried so hard to make our son give us eye contact as we were told we should and sadly we knew no better. Luckily he is now of an age to decide for himself. Better equipped by the time our youngest came along, we now advocate for her right not to give eye contact, and for teachers to understand that if she is listening she will not be looking at you. She just cannot do both.

    • Yeah, I remember when i first read about how they couldn’t maintain eye contact AND listen at the same time… so glad people are writing about their experiences of being forced to and what happens to them as a result. I cannot imagine any parent or educator believing this was a worthy goal once they understood how painful it is for so many.

  11. Agreed…e does often but I have also seen others post that it can be painful I think knowing that he chooses to rather than is forced makes a difference

  12. Interestingly, my son makes more eye contact since we stopped trying to encourage (force?) it. When we first started on the road to diagnosis, increasing his eye contact was an important goal for me. I thought if he makes more eye contact he will learn better and connect with others better. Oh my goodness, I had it all the wrong way round! I have completely changed tack since then. I learned to respect his need to regulate his levels of eye contact and also educated myself about sensory differences. I found that the right kind of sensory input, particularly proprioceptive input, hugely increases his levels of eye contact. This was never the aim, just an accidental and interesting side effect.

  13. When we were searching for a diagnosis for our son, a child psychiatrist actually opined that he could not have autism because he made eye contact. He still does. My own solution for years was to have something in my hands – embroidery, crochet or the like. It gave me someplace unexceptionable to look, and it didn’t take my teachers or friends long to realize that busy hands and eyes focused downward did not mean wasn’t paying attention.momagc

  14. Pingback: Eye Contact – or the lack thereof: Don’t push it | Walkin' on the edge

  15. Pingback: In the News – October 2013 | The PsychoJenic Archives

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