Going Through the Motions

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
~ Neil Gaiman

“Pay attention!” my mom would command, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

And then I’d wonder to myself, (Which? Pay attention to what she was saying, or look at her eyes when she was talking to me?)

Eye contact among autistics is a funny thing; some can do it easily, some situationally, some rarely, a few never at all. Interestingly, how well someone can make eye contact has no bearing as an indicator on how well one can socialize, the verbal-communicative abilities or other-communicative abilities, intelligence, sensory sensitivities, or any number of other traits sometimes associated with autism. (I also work with children with other developmental disabilities who can make excellent eye contact, but have great difficulty with verbal communication and other kinds of social interactions.)

Eye contact is also a cultural thing, as such is considered to be rude in other parts of the world, meaning that gaze aversion is not necessarily a problem elsewhere.

So basically, one’s ability to make eye contact when interacting with people doesn’t mean squat in regards to other abilities. It just means that making eye contact can be difficult.

Personally, it’s something I have to make a conscious effort to do in job interviews, doing public speaking, and in some conversations. This conscious process distracts from other mental efforts, such as the extra work required by my Auditory Processing Disorder, and making the eye contact is also distracting in itself because it detracts from my ability to retrieve and process information needed for the conversation. Some of my perceived “making eye contact” is really just me doing a little lip-reading when there’s background noise getting in the way of auditory filtering and decoding.

And yet, in this part of the world the eye contact issue is a big deal for some people, or so you’d believe from reading various kinds of autism resources. People spend great amounts of time ensuring that their autistic children learn to do this when they are expected to do so.

Like teaching a Deaf child to lipread and use speech, some kinds of social training are emulator processes. The perceived improvements in communication can be deceiving because the Deaf person is not necessarily getting the same quality level of communication from the process, and is working many more times harder than anyone else to get what they do.

Recent research by Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and others at Stirling University has shown that gaze aversion reduces the cognitive load (amount of mental processing required), thus enabling both adults and children to better recall information and to better formulate responses. Requiring eye contact actually reduces the factual quality and the verbal complexity of responses.

So when we teach and require eye contact, what we must ask is, Who really benefits from this? Does it help the autistic? Or does it mostly just make the neurotypicals (NTs) feel more comfortable? Is the autistic really getting the same results (of being able to discern the non-verbal communication), or are they just going through the motions?

This is important – it’s not just window dressing designed to put others at ease – if the autistic person merely appears to be conversing typically, then the NT half of the dialog assumes that the rest of the communication is also happening. And of course, when something isn’t perceived by the autistic, the NT is frustrated and may erroneously attribute rudeness or lack of caring. And/or, the NT is confused because the non-verbal signals the autistic is giving off don’t jibe with what is “supposed” to be going on.

In any regard, if one is not getting the real or perceived benefits, then it’s just play-acting. It’s an elaborate social lie and a misrepresentation, and ultimately benefits no one. Furthermore, trying to stamp out gaze aversion makes various kind of mental processing more difficult, and for crying out loud, no one needs more mentally-taxing work!

Parents, therapists, educators and clinicians are focusing on the wrong thing (pardon the pun). Eye contact or gaze aversion is merely a sidetrack issue. What people are really concerned about is whether or not the individual of concern (child or adult) is truly engaged in the communication process. Is there mutual participation, comprehension, and the ability to share understanding and information? These are the real concerns that we need to be looking at.



  1. 5 October 2007 at 18:10

    I’m probably saying this way too late for mamarhu to see this, but what if he faced in his grandmother’s direction but with his eyes shut? Or with a blindfold that could be fashioned for the purpose? That way, she could see his face (lips) but he wouldn’t have to deal with eye contact that he cannot tolerate. I suppose it might feel strange for him … and I know if it were me, it would probably feel very strange (at least initially) trying to lipread someone who has their eyes screwed shut or is blindfolded. But … wonder if that would be worth a try all around?

  2. mamarhu said,

    30 March 2007 at 20:50

    I live with my Deaf mother, and my 10 year old son who has autism spectrum disorder. This is the first time I have put together why it is so difficult for them to communicate. She needs to read his lips; he needs to turn his head away! Duh! I can hardly express what a huge revelation this is for me. Neither of them would ever be rude to the other, and I have explained to my boy that she needs to be able to see his face. But it never occurred to me that he really can’t accomodate her. It will really help her understand his apparent aloofness. Thank you.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    28 March 2007 at 2:47

    Howdy yet-another-Andrea (gee there are a lot of Andrea’s out there!)

    Hmn, this is an interesting question … (and no fear, I followed the convolutions just fine — it takes one to know one!)

    One possible outcome would be that the child could end up defaulting to one of those autistic cheats, where you look at some other part of the face, such as the chin or mouth (especially as you say, so many signs are near that area).

    Sometimes autistic children will look at someone more-or-less directly, but will have their faces tilted away, so they end up looking sideways or upwards towards the other person. (This can come off as being mischievous, sly, charming, evasive et cetera, depending upon the mood of the other person.)

    As you may know, our peripheral vision (the rods in our eyes) is better for detecting motion, so a sideways glance would be easier for catching some of the larger gestures, although it might lose some fineness of perception for the more finely-detailed motions, like finger-spelling. (N.B. for other readers, American Sign Language finger-spelling is done single-handedly, unlike British Sign Language finger-spelling).

  4. 28 March 2007 at 0:44

    I know I’m many months behind in replying to this post, so probably no one will see this except The Other Andrea (meaning The Andrea Who Is Not Me … see how egocentric I am about my name? :-P :-). One of the readers at ballastexistenz recently pointed me to your blog and I’ve been browsing through your site since then, starting with all your links from your centenarian post.

    Some rambly thoughts that cross my mind:

    I’m coming at all this from the perspective of a Deaf, non-autistic woman with attention deficit disorder. I started reading ballastexistenz because I was curious to learn about autism, but eventually found that even though there are many aspects of the autistic experience that I don’t relate to on a personal level (because, after all, I’m not autistic), there are some aspects that are amazingly similar, particularly those related to executive functioning. (Have you seen Amanda’s post on How to make a phone call, in 70 easy steps? That’s me!). So I thought I would find it interesting to learn more about my own ADD and the commonalities between ADD and autism from someone who has experienced both first hand.

    In relation to eye gaze and cultural differences: I assume you know at least a little something about Deaf culture because I note that you capitalize the word Deaf. (Not all deaf people capitalize the word –I go back and forth on it myself. Not all deaf people even use the word “deaf.” But I digress. I can’t help it, you see. I have ADD ;-) ) So perhaps you knew that in the Deaf community, eye contact (or, if not necessarily eye ball to eye ball contact, then at least looking right at the person) is even more important than it is among hearing people — in, apparently, pretty much any cultural context (so Deaf Japanese non-autistics make more eye contact than hearing Japanese non-autistics, though maybe not as much as Deaf American non-autistics). This is because, of course, Deaf people communicate visually, whether in sign language or by lipreading. So we HAVE to look at the other person to understand them. Again, not necessarily eye ball to eye ball — with signing, many Deaf people actually look at the other person’s mouth, I think maybe because many signs are near the mouth area, and when signs do leave the mouth area it’s easier to catch them in your peripheral vision if you’re generally focused on the mouth. Among Deaf [American] sighted non-autistics, it’s generally considered rude to not look when someone is talking, because if you can’t see the person then you can’t read their signs (or their lips) so communication can’t happen that way — kind of like a hearing child sticking his/her fingers in hir ears going “la la la la” when a parental figure tries to tell them that it’s time to Go Do Homework now.

    Some years ago, I was a classroom aide in a classroom with a deaf, nonautistic boy who had a visual impairment. At first, I would try to urge him to LOOK when people were talking — because I didn’t understand that the blind spot in his field of vision sometimes made that a self-defeating goal: if he were to “look” directly at a person, then he might actually be unable to see them! But if he were allowed to determine for himself how and where to look, then it became clear that he was able to read signs in his peripheral vision — even though he was giving off signals that would ordinarily be read by Deaf, non-autistic, sighted Americans as signifying that he “wasn’t paying attention.”

    Another anecdote: I heard a story once about a Deaf man in Japan whose parents always forbade him to make eye contact with them, because that was rude in the local cultural context. But if he couldn’t look at them, then he had no way to lip read them. That cut him off from communication. I heard he ended up moving to America because it was more acceptable to look at a person here, so he was better able to meet his communication needs here. So that’s a case where a hearing autistic person could fit in well (because it’s okay to not make eye contact) but at least one non-autistic Deaf person felt excluded.

    But I wonder what would happen with an autistic child (deaf or hearing) in a family with non-autistic Deaf parents. I can imagine they might initially put even more pressure on the child than most parents to make eye contact, at least until they learned about their child’s autism. Then what came after that would depend on how well they were able to learn to understand and respect the differences, and also on how well they were able to recognize that it actually IS possible for a person to read signs entirely through peripheral vision alone.

    Sorry for my long, rambling comment. I hope it’s viewed as a compliment that your post triggered such a long (if disorganized–ha!) chain of thoughts.

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