Have you ever wondered why autistic people avoid eye contact? Should you discipline autistic children for not making eye contact or force them to engage in it? Read on for all the questions you’ve been too afraid to ask autistic people.
- Eye contact is a social construct
- People don't hear with their eyes.
- Autistic vs. non-autistic communication
- Frequently asked questions about autistics avoiding eye contact
- Autistic people will never be non-autistic
Eye contact is a social construct
In Western society, eye contact is commonly associated with attentiveness and integrity. People who don’t make eye contact are thus inferred to be lying.
Neurotypical people often don’t understand that behaviors they do are because of social constructs or who they are — they just do it.
Communication skills in Western society rely on able-bodied, neurotypical communication styles for speaking, eye contact, and “proper” body language. People are ignorant of varying experiences and interpretations.
In other words, you were conditioned from a young age to make eye contact with the adults and other authority figures in your life, because it was prioritized over any other thing you did wrong.
Here’s the most surprising part of eye contact expectations: neurotypical people need eye contact to feel loved, seen, heard and appreciated. Autistic people often don’t need eye contact and instead need the opposite, so they don’t feel unheard, misunderstood or threatened.
Might this be an evolved behavior from neurotypicals, who thus insist on autistic people making eye contact with them and fail to regulate their emotions when autistic people avoid eye contact?
People don’t hear with their eyes.
A common neurodivergent pondering is why eye contact is required in communication. You don’t hear with your eyes. Not everyone comprehends body language quite the same way, or finds it necessary.
You might have been taught in communication or speech class, or by your caregivers, that crossing your arms implies you’re unapproachable or angry. This is just one example of a way that non-verbal communication can be misunderstood.
The caveat to this education is the nuance of the double empathy problem:
- Different perceived life experiences result in you interpreting your social interactions and other people’s behaviors differently.
- Neurodivergent people may struggle to comprehend body language or understand what to do with it.
- People with Cluster B personality disorders, or forms of psychopathy, often struggle to empathize with others and interpret things outside their perception of reality.
Autistic people aren’t listening to you if they’re making eye contact. I’m not speaking for all autistic people, but this is the general consensus throughout the autistic community. You can’t have our eyes and our ears at the same time.
Autistic vs. non-autistic communication
To completely understand why autistic people don’t rely on eye contact, you need to understand how we communicate.
Non-autistic, also known as allistic, people often speak between the lines of what they want to say. They rely on their tone of voice and body language to transfer the meaning to the next person.
Autistic people tend to communicate literally, heavily relying on the words they say. Although they might struggle to find the right words, especially if they’re non-speaking autistics speaking anyway, but their tone of voice and body language will fluctuate based on self-regulation and language processing.
- Allistic people fill in context based on their interpretation of the other person’s behavior.
- Autistic people rely on existing context of the words said, using their perceived life experiences as backup.
Autistic individuals might be able to learn how to communicate with non-autistic people, especially if they’re able to mask, but it will never be on par with neurotypical communication.
On the other hand, neurotypical people can unlearn neurotypical standards of communication if they actively work towards identifying ableism both outside and within themselves.
Neurotypical standards for communication and proper ways of living are inherently ableist and unaccommodating.
For this reason, autistic people will never be capable of meeting non-autistic people halfway in order to communicate clearly with one another. If neurotypicals want to form healthy relationships with autistics, they’re going to have to learn how to communicate with us. They’re going to have to accommodate us.
When learning a new language, like Japanese, you don’t try to become Japanese yourself. You learn about Japanese culture, how the language came to be, and the nuances of everything encompassed within.
The same goes for autism: Learn about our culture and language instead of trying to become us. Peer-to-peer information transfer between autistic people is usually flawless — so don’t be surprised if the autistic in your life leaves because you refuse to accommodate them.
Examples of implied vs literal context
Instead of assuming you know what I mean by “reading between the lines” and how you could speak more clearly, here are some examples.
Reading between the lines is where you find meanings you think were intended, but were not directly expressed.
Examples of communicating between the lines
- “I hate being the only one who takes out the trash,” when you mean that you feel like you are expected to do this chore more than others.
- Someone says they just want a gift card for their birthday or holidays, and you take this to mean they want something you think is much better.
- “You’re uniquely qualified for this role!” to mean no one else wanted to do it.
- Saying “I’m thirsty” when you want someone else to get you a drink.
Neurodivergent people tend to perceive this language and behavior as manipulative, especially when you make eye contact.
Communicating with literal context
Literal context means not applying meanings to words based on anything other than the words themselves. Never read between the lines with autistic people, especially if they don’t make eye contact.
Examples of communicating with literal meaning
- “Can someone else take out the trash sometime? Could we alternate chores?”
- “I remember you saying you only wanted a gift card — so I put it in a card. Enjoy!”
- “Your skillset qualifies you for this role!”
- “Could you bring me a glass of water before you come back in here?”
Frequently asked questions about autistics avoiding eye contact
Autistic people will never be non-autistic
One part of emotional regulation is learning how to manage your own feelings as the result of your perceptions. Ask yourself why you think autistics behaving like autistic people is rude.
So frequently, allistic people are quick to label autistic people as “rude” and tell us what they don’t like or can’t handle certain behaviors, while also saying they “have no issue with the autism”.
Non-autistic people fail to realize autistic people are behaving like autistic people. We can’t just turn our autism off when it’s convenience for us or you.
If an autistic loved one in your life doesn’t make eye contact, and that’s something you hate about them, know this: You cannot love the autistic person and hate their autism. Like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, each clause contradicts the other.
Would you get upset with your cat for not barking like a dog? Or your dog for not hissing like a cat? Would you expect your bicycle to behave like a car so you don’t have to put in the effort of pedaling in order to go places?
In neurotypical society, neurodivergent people are disabled. Neurotypical culture is the default, and microaggressions run rampant. Historically, autistic people have devoted their lives to living per neurotypical norms for the chance of being accepted and loved, sacrificing ourselves and our health.
Autistic people will never not be autistic. Stop trying to make us be that way, anyway, and embrace our differences as who we are.