Challenges with Eye Contact
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
It's a fairly well-known characteristic of autism that we have trouble making and keeping eye contact. It can be a challenge, and even frustrating, issue to deal with, especially if you don't understand why it's happening.
Let me start by refuting one idea out there that attempts to explain the matter. It claims that autistics lack a "theory of mind", meaning that we don't understand that another person lacks their own thoughts and feelings, and therefore don't make eye contact with you because we don't recognize that you are someone to make contact with. Yes, autistics often have trouble understanding that other people have separate thoughts and viewpoints, but this has nothing to do with why we don't make eye contact.
We have trouble looking people in the eye because making eye contact causes a kind of information overload. When we look at you, our brains focus on details and have trouble forming the parts of the face into a whole. When most people look a face, they see a face that forms an expression. When an autistic looks at a face, they see the individual parts - the nose, the eyes, the mouth, and eyebrows, etc. So we're processing the different parts individually rather than the expression on your face as a whole. That makes the face a lot of information to process, and we end up in information overload.
So, to cope with the information overload, we don't make eye contact. It may seem like we're not listening to you because we're not looking at you, but sometimes we can listen better if we don't look at you. When most people listen to another person talk, research has found that their brain stops processing visual information as much, to focus instead on processing on sound and listening. However, it's been found that in autism, the brain doesn't make the change as readily, trying to process both your thoughts and your face at the same time. So we have an easier time listening if we can look away, so that we don't have to process your words and your face at the same time.
I've gotten better at it over the years, so I can usually keep the contact. But I still have my times when it's hard. Because putting my thoughts into words can also be hard, when I'm trying to say something I really have to think about, that's when I'll still drop the eye contact. And when I do keep the eye contact, I'm usually not looking at your whole face - I'm often focusing on just one eye. Looking at just that one eye means that I'm only processing the visual information from just that one eye, instead of your whole face, and that reduces the amount of information I have to process.