Why is eye contact uncomfortable?

Question for the autistic people who do not like making eye contact, can you explain why eye contact is uncomfortable?

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My view is that eye contact has so many layers of potential meaning, subtext, and nonverbal communication attached to it. There’s a lot to process - a lot of "what if"s about what the person might be thinking or communicating and how it relates to us. It takes a lot of confidence in oneself and one’s interactions with others (or alternatively a lot of trust for the individual) for an autistic person to maintain eye contact ‘unashamedly’ with someone whom we might otherwise believe is judging us for missing some social cue or other. Autistic people are often highly self conscious about breaking social conventions accidentally, and the implication that somebody is looking directly at us because we are acting strangely to them, feels all too possible and very uncomfortable.

My other observation is that many autistic people have grown up in environments where if we broke some unwritten rule or social convention (usually unknowingly), our parent would get angry with us and would make eye contact whilst rebuking us for the behaviour. The eye contact was used (often forced e.g. “look at me when I’m speaking to you”) to communicate the sternness and to ensure that the child understood that they had done something wrong - even if they didn’t understand what precisely it was they’d done. It occurs to me that in many households, anger and upset directed towards the child was the most likely cause for adults (parents, teachers etc.) to make eye contact, particularly the case for forced eye contact. If you grow up in an environment where the only reason for anyone to ever look you in the eyes was to make you feel guilty and ashamed, eventually you are going to start habitually avoiding eye contact.

[n.b. If you’re a parent reading this, the takeaways are 1) use eye contact to communicate positive emotions as often as you can, 2) if you’re upset with a child, always explain (using words) precisely what someone has done to offend you, and 3) never force someone to make eye contact with you if they don’t want to. There. Not so difficult, is it?]

Speaking as a socially confident autistic person, I only find myself feeling comfortable making maintaining eye contact when I am also in an environment where I am feeling socially confident. Even then, I have to break my years-old habits of avoiding eye contact, and remind myself to make eye contact with people I am speaking to. This is an extra process to concentrate on because it is nigh impossible for an autistic person to look into someone’s eyes and not derive meaning or implication of some sort, such as “are they listening to me”, “do they believe what I’m saying”, “do I sound weird to them” and the old favourite; “oh no, I was concentrating on them so hard that I’ve forgotten what I was going to say again”.

This is particularly noticable for public speaking, where re-watching videos of myself delivering talks to rooms of people, I noticed that I will look absolutely anywhere except people’s faces, without even realising it at the time. When speaking to a small group, I have to consciously force myself to look at people’s faces whilst talking to people, usually by reminding myself that what I am saying is useful, expert, and important - worth their time. This conscious process takes a lot of effort and often distracts me from the contents of my talk.

Whilst listening, it is much easier for me to maintain eye contact than whilst talking. This is because listening is a much simpler exercise (assuming that the person you’re listening to is not upset with you, then it gets complex). Eye contact enhances the listening by providing additional information on non-verbal expression and communication, which aids understanding. It is hard to maintain that level of deep observation whilst also concentrating on saying stuff or keeping your conversation on track.

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