Eye contact seems to be a REALLY BIG DEAL for a lot of people, particularly those in positions of authority. Not staring directly at their pupils? Clearly you aren’t paying attention. Avoiding eye contact when they’re talking to you? Makes you look shifty – what are you trying to hide, eh?
The diagnostic criteria, the school reports, the parental questionnaires all include avoidance of, or ‘disordered’, eye contact as an indication of autism. Why is it such a big deal? Lacking data necessary to answer this question satisfactorily, I had to do some research.
Many, many hours later and I’m back with some initial observations. Firstly, searching Google for ‘eye contact and communication’ gave me links to business coaching sites talking about the power of eye contact in persuasion and customer relationships, for communicating confidence in public speaking, for demonstrating attentiveness during a conversation and even in increasing perceived attractiveness …
Undoubtedly, the structure and function of human eyes has evolved over time, and there seems to be a general consensus that human eyes are designed to communicate and to aid cooperation as a species. Whilst most other primates have eyes that are well camouflaged, humans have evolved eyes that stand out visually from the rest of the face and that have bright white and clearly visible sclera, which the ‘cooperative eye hypothesis‘ suggests makes it easier to see and follow another’s gaze when working together, to communicate and to draw attention to something in the environment that you haven’t noticed (stand still and look up to the sky and I guarantee other people will start looking up, too).
However, the underlying message I received from these marketing sites was that good eye contact is a skill and one that can be mastered. This means that it can be taught and learned, and that one can become really good at it. What would be the benefit of a certificate of excellence in eye contact?
This goes beyond the evolutionary uses of communication and cooperation for survival and is related more to social structures, power dynamics, hierarchy and relationships. A gaze can be used to persuade, engage and manipulate or to oppress and hold authority.
Interestingly, for most other primates, direct eye contact is actually seen as a threat and one that may precede a violent challenge, particularly in relation to social status in the group, with lower-status members averting their gaze in response. A very recent study in Nature suggests that the less hierarchical the social structure, the more that eye contact is tolerated, rather than being seen as, in effect, asking for a fight.
The same study also mentions variations in the meaning of eye contact across cultures: in many places it would be considered extremely aggressive, disrespectful or threatening to look directly into another person’s eyes. There may be an association with the social structures inherent in these cultures.
So, what does that mean for autistic people? Going back to the diagnostic criteria and the behavioural observations, it’s often assumed that autistic people can’t or won’t make eye contact, or don’t do it ‘properly’, because of some inherently deficient aspect of their makeup.
Maybe though, the social benefits of eye contact just aren’t that important to an autistic brain?
Perhaps the instinctive reaction to eye gaze as a threat is still active enough to make us proceed with caution in almost every social encounter?
Maybe we prioritise other ways of communicating that are more useful to us?
In fact, the British Psychological Society have (possibly inadvertently) addressed several aspects of eye contact in an article which reinforces this alternative way of thinking. In summary:
(1) They state that “bodily awareness becomes more acute when … subjected to another’s gaze” and we instantly feel more self-conscious. That’s even more self-conscious than we already bloody well do!
(2) Eye contact is “such an intense experience” that it uses extra brain processing power, which affirms what I have always felt: if I’m looking at you then I can’t hear what you’re saying. A friend joked recently that it is as though we have a valve between our eyes and ears, so if the eyes are open the ears are closed and vice versa. This feels absolutely accurate and explains why I can’t watch TV without subtitles. An older study is cited in the BPS article recommending that children are taught to look away whilst thinking about a problem rather than continuing to gaze at the speaker, because it made thinking easier and more effective! How is that for irony.
(3) Apparently, humans automatically detect changes in pupil dilation when gazing at another person’s eyes and judge the other more positively if their pupils are nice and wide. Given that pupils can change size in response to fear, stress (i.e. almost any social interaction ever) or, obviously, brightness – a common sensitivity among the autistic humans I know – and we have no control over our autonomic systems, it seems harsh to judge me on something I don’t even know is occurring and I can do nothing about.
This is only the very tip of the iceberg as far as eye contact and autism are concerned …