Making appropriate eye contact is a recurring theme in stories about autism. Occasionally it is making too much but most often it is lack of eye contact.
Eye contact is very important in communication but it is extremely context-sensitive. Appropriate eye contact usually means that all parties agree on the purpose, context and content of the interaction. Let’s look at some examples…
Romantic eye contact
Lovers tend to make frequent and long eye contact. They gaze into each others eyes and feel flattered by the other’s gaze. The eye contact signals and reinforces the relationship. But if feelings aren’t mutual, the adoring gaze is more likely to feel like creepy, intrusive, needy or controlling.
For a couple who have been together many years, eye contact will be much different. Direct eye contact can be a signal of anger or that there is something serious to discuss.
Eye contact when thinking
Eye contact tends to happen during the phatic parts of conversation – the light, social, bonding chat. When someone is talking about something more complex, they will often look away from faces so they can think more clearly.
When two people are having a serious and thoughtful conversation, they may glance at each other frequently while actually avoiding meeting each others eyes. Making eye contact can be a request, or demand, for agreement.
Sometimes people will look away completely so they can listen more clearly to words and tone, without the distractions of facial demands for agreement.
Eye contact for persuasion and selling
Eye contact can be very persuasive, and most successful sales people and politicians will have perfected the art of looking people in the eye to convey a sense of caring, interest and honesty. How do you respond when they do it to you? Do you feel drawn in? Do you feel defensive or repelled and look away? Does it depend on how you feel about the product or political message that they are trying to sell?
Eye contact for control
If someone is determined to make you agree or comply, they will make direct eye contact. Meeting their eyes can become a sign of defiance but keeps the battle open. Refusing to meet their eyes, while also not complying, is a sign of absolute defiance. Any child will recognise the demand from a furious adult: “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Eye contact during disagreement
What happens to your eye contact if
- you disagree with someone on a topic but want to maintain the relationship
- a friend asks a favour that you think unreasonable
- a loved one gives you a gift that you hate
- a friend or loved one fishing for a compliment
- friends or family use emotional blackmail to try to get you to do something
This is just the beginning of interpreting eye contact in simple situations and if you add differences in culture, age, power, status, personality and motive it gets more and more complex. Notice the varying eye contact that you experience during the day with different people in different types of interaction and analyse what it means.
Eye Contact and Autism
Descriptions of inappropriate eye contact in the discourse about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, usually fails to take into account the context of the situation and relationship, and the expectations of the speaker.
difficulties with interaction are between people, not within one person
Communication and interaction is between people, so difficulties with interaction are between people, not within one person. If you want to engage, consider what you might be able to change about your own behaviour and expectations to reduce the barriers.