Here’s What It’s Like to Find Eye Contact Uncomfortable

Like many people on the autism spectrum, I don’t like making eye contact with people unless I know them and I trust them. Eye contact feels very intimate to me.  A handshake is one thing, but when I look in someone’s eyes, it’s a very information-dense channel.  It feels far too intimate for me to feel comfortable making eye contact with strangers or people I barely know.

Unfortunately for myself and other autistics,  our society says it’s important for me to make eye contact with people so that they feel comfortable, and that they know they can trust me. As a member of a small minority, what makes me comfortable is irrelevant.  I’ve learned to do what makes other people comfortable, because this gets me better results – but it still feels weird.

To understand how this feels, imagine someone saying the following:

“We live in a world where the polite thing to do, when you talk to someone, is to use your hand to rub the other person’s genitals. Not too hard! That’s weird, and creepy. That’s it. Just a light, gentle touch, to show the other person that you are trustworthy and honest. People who don’t rub your genitals when they talk to you – they must be nervous. Or uncomfortable.  When they act uncomfortable, it makes everyone else uncomfortable.  Why are they so uncomfortable? They are probably lying to you! My Daddy always told me, you should never trust a man who doesn’t stroke your shaft when he’s talking to you.”

And while they’re saying this, they are reaching for your genitals.

See how weird that is?

But to a culture which finds that level of intimacy normal and acceptable among strangers, if you don’t do this thing that makes you uncomfortable but everyone else insists is normal – then you get labeled the weird one who makes other people feel weird.

People who are not neurotypical are often said to have a “disorder” because they have trouble getting along in the every day world – which means they have trouble interacting with neurotypical people.   At one level, this makes sense – if you have trouble functioning, you could use some help.

But are we really the disordered ones?  The world as it is now is full of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and all kinds of other divisive, hurtful things people do – and these are all considered normal. 

Imagine a politician who truly loved all Americans equally. This person cares equally when any American dies – equally – regardless of who that American is. This means they either spend all day curled in the fetal position sobbing at the injustice of the world, or else they don’t even blink when their friend dies.  Either way, that person is unelectable – and yet, the tenets we claim to uphold – equality and concern for our fellow man – suggest that behavior is, ostensibly,  the ideal for someone in our culture. A person who says “I care for about 150 people, and then by extension maybe 1000 or so other people. Everybody else doesn’t matter much to me, but I’ll do my best to account for their concerns because that’s my job” – that person would be telling the truth, and would never get any votes.

Until we think our society, as a whole, is healthy, we should probably stop labelling those who have trouble interacting with an unhealthy society as broken.

2 thoughts on “Here’s What It’s Like to Find Eye Contact Uncomfortable

  1. Hi. This is a good blog post/article. I am creating a social skills lesson plan for a special ed class but I have to cite my sources in APA style and would like to use certain pieces of infor from your blog post in it. Would it be okay if I used your full family name and the first letters of the other parts of your name and whatever else I need to properly cite your blog post and write a works cited/references entry? This social skills lesson is going to initially be shown and presented to a relatively small number of people, but I might eventually start using it with more and more autistic kids and publish and sell it.

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