Reasons why eye contact can be hard for those on the spectrum
"For those reading this, you should never force someone into eye contact. Instead, meet them where they are and find a way to communicate best for them. "By Kerry Magro | May 19, 2023
This guest post is by Dr. Kerry Magro Ed.D., a professional speaker, best-selling author and autism entertainment consultant who is on the autism spectrum. A version of this blog appeared on Kerrymagro.com. Follow Kerry on Facebook.
Growing up on the autism spectrum, eye contact was challenging. Often it felt like an internal pressure from sensory stimulation. As a professional speaker who now gives talks with companies as part of professional development, I often mention getting rid of the interview process because of challenges like this. Instead, I recommend companies do a 1-day job trial to show what autistic employees may be capable of forgoing this challenge.
Here are 5 reasons why we should never make autistic people force eye contact:
It can be distracting. The structure was always crucial for me growing up on the spectrum. For example, when I was uncomfortable in a new surrounding, it would take me time to process the area. When that happened, I often would have someone in that recent place talk who’d want to talk to me, making me think that eye contact was needed. That interfered with me being able to view my surroundings.
Social anxiety. Processing what to say while consciously having eye contact felt like multi-tasking growing up. When I could talk without the need for eye contact, communication, and for that matter, listening, it was much more manageable.
Nonverbal communication. Autistic people like myself sometimes have facial cues and nonverbal body language issues. For example, maintaining eye contact would make me feel less able to connect with somewhile while trying to process what they were trying to emote via their expressions.
Burnout. Masking was something I’d do subconsciously, where as part of social rules, I always thought I had to look someone in the eye, or I was being rude. Of course, this would mean I’d need to be in bed for a while after school or work to feel better.
Sensory overall. If I’m in an area with bright lights, I’d need to change my eyes to the ground growing up if I didn’t have my sunglasses. Loud noises, too, would often make me look at the ground, not allowing me to have that eye contact.
Despite these challenges, theater therapy helped me build on my eye contact over time to the point where it’s not mean being forced to look someone in the eye. Still, it’s something I’m comfortable with. For those reading this, you should never force someone into eye contact. Instead, meet them where they are and find a way to communicate best for them. You may be surprised how some talented autistic individuals in our community may perform both in school and later on, perhaps in the workplace, because of it.