After finally reading both Hans Asperger’s and Leo Kanner’s original papers on autism, I’ve decided to do a new series looking at their original ideas and how those ideas evolved into today’s perception of autism. I’m calling the series Unpacking Asperger because the topics I’ve outlined are mostly drawn from Asperger’s paper with some contrasting concepts from Kanner’s work.
Let’s kick things off by unpacking the origins of commonly held beliefs about why autistic people often don’t make eye contact.
Both men wrote a great deal about atypical gaze patterns in autistic children. Kanner believed that autistic children deliberately avoided looking at people, but often fixated on looking at objects. Asperger, on the other hand, observed that “autistic children do not look with a firmly fixed glance at anything, but rather, seem to perceive mainly with their peripheral field of vision.” He went on to say that contrary to their appearance of being detached or absent, the children he studied often perceived and processed a great deal of information about the people and things around them.
While the differences between the two men’s theories about gaze may seem insignificant, they actually point to two distinct ways of thinking about autism. Kanner’s emphasis on the deliberate avoidance of looking at people frames the atypical autistic gaze as an issue of deliberate social withdrawal.
This is often the perception that dominates among professionals today. It’s not uncommon to hear autistic children described as withdrawn, absent, locked or trapped inside their bodies, and other euphemisms that imply that the child is not aware of what is happening around them. And one of the key pieces of evidence offered up is the child’s atypical gaze. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t look at their parents or playmates during playtime. They don’t use joint attention to interact socially.
Often, this perception of the child as being withdrawn is actually the inability of the neurotypical observer to read autistic body language. For example, in this video, where the narrator sees a child who isn’t interacting with the adults in the room, I see a child who is interacting using autistic body language. It’s obvious to me when the child is inviting the adults to look at his toy because I can instinctively read his nonverbal communication. It’s not that he doesn’t want to interact, it’s that he doesn’t know how to broadcast the nonverbal signs that the adults around him perceive as “I want to interact with you.”
Fleeting Glances Over Direct Gaze?
In contrast to Kanner’s focus on social avoidance, Asperger emphasized the fleetingness of the autistic gaze, regardless of the nature of the target–human or object. He believed that autistic gaze was fundamentally different from a typical person’s gaze, not that the autistic person was avoiding looking any one type of thing.
Asperger’s explanation struck me because I know that I have a tendency to visually roam, especially when I’m in a new or chaotic environment.
Even The Scientist, who is very used to my quirks, occasionally notices my erratic eye movement. A recent conversation got me thinking about how unconscious my “fleeting gaze” is. We were having dinner at a restaurant, which is fundamentally a high distractibility situation for me. The Scientist had already suggested that I sit with my back to the open kitchen, which I appreciated him noticing. Being able to hear the kitchen noise is distracting enough.
About twenty minutes into our dinner, a big party got seated at a table behind The Scientist. A few minutes after that, he asked me if I was nervous.
“Why?” I asked, as I so often do in response to questions like this.
“Because your eyes are doing this–” and then demonstrated for me:
“Really?” I was kind of alarmed because I wasn’t aware of either feeling nervous or being all shifty-eyed and erratic looking. But, after considering it, I realized that I’d been glancing at the party behind him quite frequently. There was a lot of movement and noise and distraction. It was hard not to keep looking at them.
Asperger’s explanation for our atypical gaze was that autistic people perceive information via peripheral vision rather than through a direct gaze. I’ve heard other people on the spectrum echo this idea, saying that they prefer to look at people and things peripherally because it feels less intense or more comfortable. For me, atypical gaze is related more to my inability to filter the activity in my environment and, of course, my discomfort with eye contact.
A View From Behind the Gaze
It would be nice to boil the origin of atypical gaze down to one neat hypothesis but I think it’s messier and more complex than that. Sometimes atypical gaze is about taking in information through peripheral vision. Sometimes it’s about visual stimming. Sometimes it’s about avoiding eye contact. Sometimes it’s related to difficulty filtering out sound or movement. Sometimes we’re simply thinking about something and not even paying attention to what we’re “staring” at.
Ultimately, I don’t think the typical autistic gaze is limited to fleeting glances like Asperger hypothesized or to avoiding human gaze but fixating on objects like Kanner hypothesized. I’m as likely to stare at a person as an object. I’m also as likely to glance around randomly at people as at objects. I don’t have a visual preference for one over the other. And this is going to sound bizarre, but if I’m staring at a person, I’m probably not registering them as a person. Often, when I’ve got a fixed stare going on, I’m not consciously aware that I’m looking at anything.
One of the weaknesses of both Asperger’s and Kanner’s theories is that they were guessing at what the children they studied were thinking and assigning motivations for behavior that they themselves had never experienced. Autistic gaze looks much different when you’re behind the gaze than when you’re observing from the outside. And yet, Kanner’s theory is the prevailing view today: atypical gaze = socially withdrawn. Based on that assumption, autistic kids are given therapy to improve their eye contact and teach them how to play correctly. But what if that assumption is wrong? What if autistic gaze is atypical for a myriad of reasons and none of those reasons are deliberate social withdrawal?
164 thoughts on “Unpacking Asperger: Autistic Gaze”
Interesting post as always. I definitely connect with the peripheral gaze issue. It does feel way more comfortable using my peripheral vision especially when a mass of people is coming toward me say when people have just come out of a train. I get panicked otherwise. I didn’t realise how often my eyes flicker around till I had to get computer glasses. It was blurry in the distance and I kept getting sick flickering from blurry to clear.
I do stare more at people than objects because people have more complex features. I’m not looking at them as people but as a complex object that randomly does interesting things. I’m not trying to guess what they’re thinking cause really I don’t care unless it’s hostile towards me but to see features. But then when they want to speak, I have to interact and I can’t stare.
I’ve been having the same issue with my new reading glasses. It’s annoying enough that I’m more inclined to just keep holding reading material further and further away.
It’s interesting that you relate to using your peripheral gaze intentionally. I tend to get easily distracted by things in my peripheral vision, but I’m more of a starer when I’m intentionally looking at something.
I dislike eating out. Not because the food is bad. Often it’s extremely good. It’s because I’m always distracted by what’s going on around me. If it’s an intimate dinner for two, my wife notices my eyes darting around at all the distractions and gets upset that I’m not taking what she thinks is an appropriate interest in her. I suppose it’s because I’m not able to filter out activity in my peripheral vision, so my eyes instinctively turn in that direction, if only for a short moment. Perhaps allistics can instinctively filter out non-threatening movement from threatening movement, so their eyes don’t need to check out every little movement?
Even if I can sit so no other table is in view and I can’t see staff or patron traffic, there’s still the distraction of nearby conversation. Even if nearby conversation is at a fraction of the volume of my wife’s, I find bits of conversational threads from nearby tables get tangled with those from my wife. It gets very confusing. It’s not unusual for my wife to accuse me of finding the conversation of other diners more interesting than her. Nothing could be further from the truth, but apart from her wearing a lapel microphone transmitting to a set of noise-cancelling headphones on my head, I don’t see an answer.
I can’t count the number of times we’ve driven home after dining out with my wife maintaining a stony silence.
There’s been a study done on perception of movement, and it turns out that even the lowest scoring autistic child was still better at perceiving movement than the average neurotypical child. This has been linked to higher stress and adrenaline levels in autistic children. Not clear which is causing what, though: that higher levels of stress hormone make perceiving movement easier, or that perceiving movement faster causes more stress hormones to be produced.
I’d be fairly confident that the perception of movement that causes stress rather than the other way round. It’s just another source of sensory overload from my point of view.
Well, the evolutionary purpose of stress hormones *are* that they enable you to react faster to danger. It’s sort of priming the system to respond to threats in less than a heartbeat. So stress sharpens the senses (especially peripheral vision) and elevates the oxygen content of your blood (higher heartbeat, faster breathing).
That’s why they’re not entirely sure which comes first, the heightened sensory perception or the stress levels.
But you’re right that stress breeds stress. If you’re already overloaded, it’s easy to get into a vicious cycle where more sensory input gets you more stressed out, which in turn makes you more perceptive, which in turn… well, you get the picture.
Hey Barry…..Please let you wife read the posts here….you two been married long? It might be good to let her know: The thing you are describing about eating out is VERY COMMON among us…so very common. I do this, too, and alternate speedy ‘roaming eyes’ to flat out staring, usually not at people, but it’s still “creepy”….since I have done so much research and really do make an effort to sit facing nothing that will pull my gaze and work EXTRA hard with connecting in other ways, it is accepted as a non -threatening thing, and the sting is gone from it…Not checking out other people….ASPERGERS!
I don’t feel badly when this happens, I have little control over it, and pretty much it comes down to a choice: we don’t ever go out if there is a rule that restricts me in this way, or they learn that I CAN hear them and I DO, in fact, care…….
ceiling fans hypnotize me….I’m a goner! So, no no places with ceiling fans!
(Let her know you love her AND that faces have SO much information…it’s is overwhelming to decode and listen, both aren’t likely to happen…. I can actually HEAR/LISTEN and respond better if I am not making constant direct sustained eye contact. Bet you are the same!)
Learn to be very good at massage….a good massage how she likes it can smooth hurt feelings and shows you love her.
She can understand this is NOT evidence of you being bored by her, it’s neurological and let this one go maybe?
We’ve been married a little over 42 years, but I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum about 5 years ago. While my wife accepts I am an Aspie, she really is not interested in trying to understand what that means. I would dearly like her to read some of the autism blogs I frequent, but she has refused all my invitations to do so. A big problem is that she has self esteem issues, so she often interprets other people’s actions in a negative way. That applies especially so with me.
Although she won’t say directly, what she tells me is that now that I know what’s “wrong” with me, it’s up to me to “fix” it. I can’t seem to get through to her that I’m not “broken”. I’m just hard wired a little bit differently.
/…sigh….It’s not a “fix it” thing. This worries me and it is VERY COMMON….You aren’t broken. You ARE wired differently. Hope it works out….Man, I hate reading this sort of thing…I wish she knew how ‘normal’ this is for us and NOT to be taken as an indicator of your interest or love….You will not be able to ‘fix” this, Barry. She needs to know that….figuring out what is “wrong” with you is not a helpful way to view this…And the revelation that there are others, many of us, and that you are normal to US, well, I just wish more mates and family could accept us and stop trying to cure us… Best of luck, brother….
Try to leave some books/literature around…maybe she’ll read some of it and mellow? Thinking of you and sending you some good mojo…PLEASE keep in mind what you are describing is extremely common place. And you are NOT messed up or broken…you are autistic and that is fine.
You’re not broken, you’re a saint. Self-esteem issues are difficult, I know that from experience (to the point I once screamed at my best friend to ask what the hell he needs me in his life for) – but in my opinion that’s no excuse for the way she seems to treat you. I am glad for her that you are apparently not as quick to judge. Best of luck to you!
I’m married to an Aspie male. I diagnosed him and this has helped our communication. We have alot of communication issues, because regardless of the fact that one of us is autistic and the other has ADD, we are just two different people who have grown up learning to communicate in two different ways. Putting labels on our styles of communications has been helpful so forgive me as I impose some of our communication issues on your situation. I’m doing so in case it will be helpful to you.
My husband often times will say to me” I told you this already…” or “I just said that….” But the way he chose to say it, or the words he used were not what my brain would interpret as the message he was trying to communicate. This will then lead to a fight.
So, let’s put words aside for something this important. Try writing your wife a letter and be polite but direct. If you want her to read the blogs, i would suggest starting with Cynthia’s as it is very informative and well written. Write in the letter, “I love you, I want for you to understand that I am not deliberately trying to miscommunicate with you. I think it would really help us, if you were to be aware of autistic characteristics not just by watching me but by reading about them as described by someone who is very articulate. Please consider reading this post (pick one, don’t just send her to the site because that is indirect) and especially the comments after the post. If you find it is helpful, read other posts on Cynthia’s blog as they touch on many aspects of Aspergers and autism. I want us to have a better relationship and I think it will help if we decrease the number of misunderstandings between us”. She may not tell you that she read the post, but i bet you she will with time. I wish you the best and congrats on being married for over 40 years! Not many people can achieve such a great accomplishment in their lifetime.
This next comment is for others’:
Relationships are a give and take process as I’m sure most of you know better than me. In my opinion, what i think most people misunderstand about the give and take process is that the “give” means that you give the other person in your relationship what they want, not what you think is good for them, not what you feel is the only thing you can give, not what you think they need or should have, and not something that is “good enough”, ie a half-ass job. This is the hardest thing I have encountered in having relationships. Knowing this and acting it out are two very different thing and I have yet to master it myself. I think that if you can’t give them what they want then the next step is a agreed upon compromise- which again requires two people not one deciding on their own.
And it doesn’t matter if you are and Aspie or neurotypical ( which by the way, as a scientist, i think it is a stupid and incorrect word), people, all people, struggle with relationships.
I appreciate your suggestions, but unfortunately I have tried writing already – in cards and by email. I’ve also sent her links to Web pages that had specific information relevant to our situation, all to no avail. I have several books on Aspergers which I frequently rescue from a bookshelf in a storage room and place on a coffee table. My wife freely admits to putting them away and to have not so much as opened them.
She was born and grew up in a culture very different from my own and was brought up to fulfil a specific role. Her personal aspirations were of no importance. I believe her lack of self esteem is due to the harshness of her upbringing. We have been (mostly) happily married for 42 years, mainly because there has been a lot of give and take from both of us. But in 2 aspects of my life there appears to be no “meeting of the ways”. These are my chronic migraine and and the Aspie traits of my personality. She sees ill health as a weakness (a cultural view she is unable to shake) and, in her culture autism is an illness. In her homeland, disabilities and chronic illnesses are not openly discussed, and people with them are hidden from view. Personal idiosyncrasies are not tolerated. It would seem that reading about such conditions (even in private) would break the rules imposed by her upbringing. Hence a reluctance on her part to deal with my autism and migraines in a manner appropriate to the culture she now lives in.
Oh, and in regards to neurotypical: I’ve mostly abandoned its usage, prefering “allistic” (meaning “not autistic”) instead.
BTW, there are some great websites catering to allism – mostly parodies. Many are worth reading by non autistics to gain a better understanding of their unique characteristics. Two that come to mind are “Allism Speaks” (http://allism-speaks.tumblr.com/) and “allism: an introduction to a little-known condition” (http://www.fysh.org/~zefram/allism/allism_intro.txt).
As I said before i apologise for imposing my views on you. Ofcourse you would have tried to communicate with her by now. I understand what you mean about the cultural issues. Unfortunately, my good man, those biases are a burden of culture that we all have to deal with, autistic or not. I was not born here and for most like me, we are constantly trying to erase the negative aspects of our parents cultures, but it is difficult.
Thanks for the links! They made me grin, so I’ll definitely look them up!
I get over the eye contact issue by looking at people’s noses, I was unaware that I did this until recently. If someone gave me “a look” I’d have that “someone walked over your grave feeling” and had to look away. I’m rubbish at staring anyone down, even for a second at least if I know them. If they were a customer I’d have no problem looking directly at them because the social rules seem to differ.
I think the customer interaction is probably also more impersonal too. It doesn’t require any interpretation in the way that eye contact with an acquaintance or random stranger might.
I love when people notice I am doing the “looking at your eyebrows” thing…I guess it’s pretty obvy I am not making “real” eye contact….LOL.
I work with people with Aspergers. They have a fixed gaze. I have mild Aspergers, I have a fixed gaze, sometimes objects, often eyes of those imparting knowledge. It is off putting for them, unless they are sensitive enough to realise that what the stare is. Has led to interesting offers.
Another excellent post!
I just watched the video you linked. As you say, the autistic kids are easy to read and clearly signal when they want assistance, while the NT ones appear to have a need for almost constant attention. I saw the autistic kids as content to play independently for the most part with the adults’ interactions being mostly unwanted and unwelcome distractions.
What you write about gaze feels very familiar to me. I find I’m very sensitive to movement in my peripheral vision and will often direct my gaze towards the source of motion — this is one reason, apart from the sound, that I find it difficult to converse when the TV is on. And the “staring into space” thing is one I do often, usually when I’m focused on my thoughts or another sense such as hearing.
I believe I have two “modes” of seeing: I’m either focusing intently on a small region at the center of my field of vision or I’m concentrating on the periphery. The narrow focus is probably connected to my difficulty seeing whole faces, instead experiencing them as a collection of facial features (with the exception of the eyes — eyebrows, eyelashes even, but not the eyes themselves).
I’m so easily distracted by motion in my peripheral vision and will sometimes feel a compulsive need to keep looking at something that’s distracting me in the background of a setting. Your modes theory makes a lot of sense. I tend to shift between staring (usually as some detail, but sometimes at nothing in particular) or darting around.
Aw, that video was heartbreaking. The ASD kids looked like they were being stressed out to me. I don’t know what it looks like to someone who’s not used to being stressed when they ‘know’ they’re supposed to be giving signals to get what they want to happen but don’t know how to do it, but that’s what it looked like to me. And I definitely know the feeling of going “No, I was playing with it *this* way, what are you doing winding it up again, I was perfectly happy with a non-moving penguin.” That feeling that people are messing things up when they help, instead of making them better. Although being happy with a non-moving penguin is certainly atypical, and rather misses the point of the penguin…
I’d love it if I could record myself going through one entire day. I have no idea what sort of signals I send, really, since I only see them internally. Having an outside, objective perspective would be invaluable.
I found the video stressful to watch too. The funny thing is, if the kid was repeatedly winding up and watching the penguin move, that would be considered just as “wrong” as wanting the penguin to be still. *sigh*
Making the video blogs gave me a really surprising glimpse at how I look to others. It was fascinating to watch myself from a “third person POV” and look at how I present versus how I was experiencing the situation and what was going on inside my head. I’m rather boring on the outside, I think. 🙂
The day I get a pair of Google Glasses or a little hovering drone camera is the day I become my own special interest, and make myself *really* insufferable to talk to. I’m looking forward to it :|b
The thought that kept popping up in my head was, “They’re already presuming this kid is autistic, and they’re interacting with them differently than with the neurotypical kids.” The adults seemed far more forceful and persistent in doing things THEIR way with the autistic kids. With the neurotypical kids they seemed far more content to let the kids take the lead. Like how in that first scene, the boy walks off to “prepare food”, and the adult simply positions themselves on the other side of the play area and waits for the child to come to them. They never did that with the autistic children. It was so much “in your face”, the way they imposed themselves on the autistic kids, that it made me uncomfortable to watch.
Yes to all of this.
Thanks for verbalizing this, I remember watching the part with the first kid making food and thinking the narration was WAYYY off what the kid was actually doing (which was largely independent play). Then the autistic kid where the mother tried to forcefully take his toy from him? What was that about?
To be honest I didn’t really understand any of the children’s behavior/thoughts. I mean, I got that they were playing. Further than that? No idea.
I think the food making was “good play” because it was “imaginative”. There’s a big emphasis on imaginative play and the lack of it in autistic kids.
It’s interesting that the “Autism Gaze” (avoidance of eye contact) is pretty much the opposite of the “Williams Gaze” (those with Willams Syndrome cannot get enough eye contact) — though, as very young babies, the “gaze” isn’t especially apparent in either kids with Autism or Williams Syndrome. Kids with both syndromes seem to ACQUIRE the gaze.
It was mentioned in an article in the New York Times a few years back:
““Look at the difference between Williams kids and fragile X.” Fragile X, another developmental syndrome, produces similar cognitive defects but a pronounced social reticence or aversion to looking at faces. If a Williams wants to lock eyes, a fragile X child will literally twist himself sideways to avoid eye contact. “Nothing could be more different from a Williams,” Reiss continued. “But the thing is, fragile X kids don’t do that when they’re a year old. They’ll still look at you at that age. And Williams kids don’t have that intense gaze yet at that age. It’s only over the next year or two that they take this incredible divergence. In both cases you have a genetically inclined pattern of behavior that is reinforced…
… Take the gaze,” Reiss told me. Everyone who has worked with Williams children knows the Williams gaze, which in toddlers is often an intense, penetrating eye contact of the sort described as “boring right through you.” The gaze can seem like a hard-wired expression of a Williams’s desire to connect. Yet the gaze can also be seen as a skill learned at the end of the horrible colic that many Williams infants suffer during their first year and before they start to talk well. This window is longer than that for most infants, as Williams children, oddly, start talking a year or so later than most children. It’s during this window that the gaze is at its most intense. Until she was 9 months old, for instance, Nicki Hornbaker rarely slept more than an hour at a time, and when she was quiet she tended to look vaguely at her mother’s hairline. Then her colic stopped, she started sleeping and “almost overnight,” her mother told me, “she became a happy, delightful, extremely social child, and she couldn’t get enough eye contact.” Later, when talk gave Nicki a more effective way to connect, the intensity of the eye contact eased. Nicki’s eyes now meet yours, warm and engaging, but they don’t bore through you.”
I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on what you read. Vry much like how you found the two quite similar descriptions yet teased apart the differences between them, as well as the fact that they’re both weak. My attention is with what is around me and with what I’m doing, not solely with the people. Restaurants are at times awful, due to high noise levels and smells. My son describes my modus operandi overly simplistically albeit humorously as, “squirrel!”, because as he sees it I’m really good – or some might say bad – at seeing cool stuff like for example flowers, trees, hawks, bluebirds, squirrels, wild turkeys, and interesting painting landscape compositions.
😀 love ‘squirrel!’. I too find it hard not to call out the interesting stuff. And I can spot a spider across the room without my glasses on (arachnophobic and short sighted)
“Squirrel!” is perfect. Your son has a great sense of humor.
Last weekend I pointed out to my daughter that I’d noticed that the geese have started to pair off for mating. At first she kind of laughed it off as one of the weird things I blurt out. Then as we were driving around town, she couldn’t help but notice that there were pairs of geese all over the place (literally one pair in the median and one on each side of the road at a stop light, for example, and always in 2’s!) and said with a bit of admiration, “how do you even notice this stuff?!”
Amusing anecdote: I was once speaking with a person who I relate strongly to (we both were really sick kids and are chronically ill adults. I’m autistic, I don’t read her as autistic but definitely as neuroatypical) and have always had an easy time talking with even if we’re both too different in our interests to become close friends (I can’t friend if I don’t have shared interests with the person). I didn’t even notice that I kept glancing away until she looked behind her and I asked why and she said I kept glancing behind her so she thought there was something there! XD And this is a person I like and am quite comfortable around and even enjoy being friendly acquaintances with as she’s one of the few outside of my friend circle who has never judged me for flapping or weird body language or what have you, so I wasn’t nervous or anything. I just glance around a lot.
I can only wonder what other people think of us when we’re glancing all around. I remember when my husband and I were first married, my distractibility in restaurants used to make him really irritable. We’d be out for a nice dinner and he couldn’t figure out why the heck I was constantly looking around and watching other people, etc. I guess he thought he was boring me. 🙂 Now he’ll just say something like “are you feeling overloaded?” to help me realize what’s happening and see if there’s anything he can do to help.
I think it’s self-preservation in action! What is that noise about? Will it cause me harm, should I move? I am hyper-aware of my surroundings so that I don’t run into trouble! I’m clumsy due to motor skills difficulty so I need more time to plan an escape!
That’s a great point. Hyperawareness can be a useful way of staying safe in a chaotic world. 🙂
Yes!!! I completely agree. Why are they not asking actual Autistics like you or I what we are actually feeling when we do not give eye contact? Or when I try to explain to professionals they brush me off- like I do not know as much as the texts…yet I am living it! It’s so frustrating. I feel the same way as you. It’s definitely not that I do not want to socialize…many times I have zoned out due to sensory stuff or am suddenly thinking not realizing I am looking through a person.
That video enraged me a bit. I have been there in those moments of misunderstanding. Just because we do not relate the same means that it is a flawed social way of relating. I tried to leave a comment but it would not allow me to do so. Probably for the best as I was a little ticked. Anyway, I do appreciate that they are at least trying to understand but the misunderstandings do far more damage in the long run. I wish they would read your blog:)
I saw children who were content to be or overwhelmed with annoying attention or sensory overload. To me it looks like the NTs need to lay off or learn a different way of socializing. I am glad you wrote this post instead of me because you were much more grace filled in your response. I am just annoyed and angry at the whole video…
Exactly! It’s interesting how theories that were formed 70 years ago have taken such deep root. I realize that there “weren’t” any autistic adults to ask about this stuff when Kanner and Asperger were doing their original research, but there are certainly plenty around today.
The video did make me angry, but I restrained myself here. My husband got the brunt of my ranting. What struck me was how differently the facilitators approached the autistic and nonautistic children. Especially in one pairing (I think the second?) the facilitator was obviously engaged in a completely different way with the child – playing happily and actively with the nonautistic child while making a lot of notes and nearly ignoring the autistic child except for prodding the child to play more normally. Ack.
And then the parent or facilitator grabbed the child’s arm to try to make him disengage from the phone. I get being frustrated with not understanding or being able to influence a child’s behavior, but grabbing them doesn’t seem right. It reduces the child to the level of a puppy–something a parent can strong arm into ‘normal’ behavior through fear and restraint.
I noticed that too. It seems like a bit part of “not playing right” is “not responding to every single thing an adult says or does to get your attention”.
We must seem very strange to people who see objects as social nexuses, not as objects. I guess for the NT groups, the toys are there to bring the people together–they’re secondary. For the ASD kids, the objects are taken on their own terms, not seen as social tools automatically. I guess focusing attention hard on the objects *is* not playing right by NT terms. (I remember in college, I participated in an acting improv exercise for a class. The point was for everyone to organically create a scene where we searched through objects in the room for the source of a sound–to try to create a sort of cooperative discovery narrative. I totally missed the point, and just went right for the source of the sound and tried to force everyone to go for it, too, instead of creating a slow, developing scene together to find it. The professor grabbed my arm and told me to sit out. That’s one of my deepest shame memories. I wept outside for the rest of the class because I knew I had messed up, and I knew why but too late to do anything about it. Object-based and people-based basic thinking are poor bedfellows.)
And then people ask us why we make such a fuss about being different and why we need a label. BECAUSE OF THIS. Our natural behaviour gets punished over and over and over. No wonder so many of us try to blend in and hide our real selves.
It makes me so angry.
Also, forgot to say: I’m so sorry that happened to you. I would have done the same thing. And that professor should have accepted that your attempt to make others see your discovery is actually part of the organic narrative AS WELL. Idiot.
The professor was the ‘bad’ kind of actor–self-important and snide. He did a lot of insulting me throughout that class in sly ways that I didn’t always recognize at the time (calling me Shatner, which I didn’t get, because I hadn’t watched Star Trek yet, for instance). It was my roughest course, and the only acting one I had to take as a theatre major, thank heavens! It was also a course I remember doing some *massive* stimming in that class, full-body almost gymnastic-like things that I’d never done before, because I was so tense. Oddly enough, he complimented me on those. I think they looked rather artsy XD
Thank you for reminding me to go and add the most recent responses to the Stimming Checklist 😀
Oh my gosh, that sounds like such a horrible experience. I hate that feeling of being singled out by people in authority as being “wrong”. It’s happened too many times for me not to get a terrible feeling in my stomach just reading about your experience. And I would have done the same thing as you and then wondered why everyone else was wasting so much time getting to the point. *sigh* Directness is rarely rewarded socially.
Exactly! I was like, ah, we’re doing an exercise. The point of an exercise is to *get it done.* Except, of course, I missed the fact the point of the exercise was to build an ensemble, not *actually* to find the sound…
The prof was a jerk. I had the satisfaction of talking to classmates later and realizing I wasn’t the only one who thought so. That’s always validating. There were other kids in the major who were more obviously atypical than me; since the class was a requirement, I hate to think how they fared.
Hooray for validation! 🙂
I had the very same feeling! Thanks for putting that into words.
One of the biggest problems I had with my internship last summer in which I worked with autistic kids was how several times the NT teachers told me to “play” Mr. Potato Head or another toy with one of the autistic kids, because they needed to “learn functional play”. First of all, this was a terrible pairing, because I too am Autistic and suck at the type of creative play that NTs look for. Second of all, I was furious about this, because it seemed so judgmental to me. The girl I worked was having fun doing her own thing with Mr. Potato Head. I didn’t understanding why there was a “right and wrong” way to play, and why anyone needed to butt in and change the way she played. It seemed so pointless and messed up to me.
I have just watched the video and found it very depressing. All those assumptions – positive for the so-called normal child (funny they didn’t give the windup toy back to her when she clearly wanted it but set it moving out of arms reach) and then all those negative assumptions about the ASD children. They treated them so differently it was embarrassing to watch from a science-y point of view, and also it is a fear-inducing video just horrible, horrible and all done with that smarmy know-it-all ‘I’m-kind-but-objective’ voice (when the comments were neither kind nor objective). UGH!
The approach in the video is rife with inherent bias. I understand that they’re trying to make a point and illustrate autistic traits in young children, but the way they approached is very negative and inorganic.
Actually I think pairing you with the autistic kids is the perfect pairing to make the kids feel comfortable. Not so much when it comes to advancing the “functional play” agenda I guess. I don’t understand why autistic kids can’t play however they enjoy. I did growing up (and suspect that’s true of many of us) and turned out just fine (IMO).
“It’s interesting how theories that were formed 70 years ago have taken such deep root.”
You know, this is a typical problem in science, somebody has a theory and then everyone keeps citing it and following it like a herd of cows with their heads down. I find it really frustrating, because the more citations, the more credited becomes the work and the harder it is to challenge, reinterpret or dispute its findings. And the way science funding works is to promote/fund new findings, not to re-question and revisit old findings, hence once something is deemed established, the are more opportunities ( money wise) to add to a theory as opposed to revising it.
This is sadly true, although we aren’t still bleeding people with leeches so there is some progress made over the years. 🙂 But yes, I know what you mean about papers becoming the canonic work on a problem and then being impossible to unseat. There is work being done to challenge a lot of the now stereotypical “findings” of past work, but it’s very hard to change the popular thinking on things that everyone seems to simply take for granted. So even if the research is there, few people seem to be aware of outside of the scientific community.
Love your comment about science! Being of a scientific bent muyself (and as I recently discovered, Aspie which probably means nothing?), I have come to some conclusions: many PhDs should never have been awarded ebcause their theses have been overturned subsequently. Which means they did not do the job to exhaustion. The worst consequence of this is that some of these academic musings, particularly in the social sphere have led to some terrible ideas being implemented in the classroom. Here is New Zealand we have had some madcap ideas put into practice which have led to a steep decline in literacy and numeracy. Never mind that the clever dicks who came up with “whole language learning” etc. seem unable to realize that their “success” if one can frame it thus was a result of phonics, basic arithmetic skills, times tables etc. being drummed into them at school. They have left a scorched landscape of incapable people in their wake in attempting to come up with original ideas which were never tested prior to being put into practice in the classroom. The result: people who cannot shop well because they are incapable of doing simple mental arithmetic, don’t cactch out mis-pricing on “specials” at the supermarket etc. And that is just the simple stuff. What’s worse, the academics who are supposed to be vetting PhD. theses appear to be wanting. Politicians are bad enough being elected for being popular rather than having brains but people who are supposed to bastions of knowledge and wisdom?? Sad.
Re-science, I just wanted to add (sorry for a second bite of the cherry) that nothing is fixed in stone. Mathematical proofs are definitive, theories formed by observation and experiment are only as good as the limits those (cofirmational) experiments put on them. To me, the essence of science is being critical one’s own thinking, always putting to the test theories of others and always exploring other possibilites (to be put to the test as Karl Popper once so eloquently defined it). Case in point – Newton’s theory of gravitation vs. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. I am constantly in awe of really smart people who have explored the boundaries (squeezed light giving LIGO more sensitivity) and those geniuses who have now given us the James Webb space telescope and its clever instrumentation. BTW, I cannot wait to see what it shows us beyond what is already known. I am hoping for a serious rethink of ideas pertaining to dark matter and dark energy (and hopefully a rethink of the structure and age of the universe not to mention ideas on the big bang. I think there is much room for further learning on all those fronts. LIGO’s success in locating merging neutron stars which allowed earth-based telescopes to observe them in action explaining how the fissionable elements in the universe (and here on earth) are formed was one of the revelations of the century to my way of thinking. Thanks for listening and sorry to bore those who aren’t interested. An Aspie am I.
I agree, they need to start asking adults with Aperger’s how we experience the world! Their assumptions can be rather error prone and unhelpful! We have very accurate memories of our experiences and we can usually communicate easier than a child can! Ask us, we have answers!
I actually was socially withdrawn as a child — and continue to be to this day. However, my lack of eye contact is not always a message that I don’t want to interact. And it’s not a message that I’m not “present.” So many times I’ve been told that I was “in my own world” when I was actually fully present, taking in everything everyone was saying, following all of their conversations (which I find easier to do when my face and body look “zoned out” — less energy for looking “normal” means more energy for understanding what people are saying).
I was quiet–probably considered socially withdrawn–but mostly content to be on my own as a child. But yes, like you said, the relationship between social interest and eye contact is not a direct one at all. We probably take in more than the average person in a given social situation, even if don’t appear to be “engaged” socially.
Yes. I had a teacher in Junior High (middle school) That at first would call on me with questions, thinking I wasn’t paying attention. He later would call on me because I gave answers with more detail than he gave the class. In college I “zoned out” rather than taking notes because my writing was slow and I got much more info by just listening. When I tried to look normal, I just couldn’t keep up. I also hated eye contact, it made me very uncomfortable. I’m still not sure why, although I can make short eye contact now. It probably doesn’t help that I have a wandering eye (sometimes causing double vision) glasses help with it though.
Me too! Sometimes my lack of eye contact was criticized and when I became aware of it and that what I was doing was not normal, I literally retreated into my hole and wondered what was wrong with me. I onlt discovered I was Apsie a couple of weeks ago – I’d been unable to understand many things about myself until then. I always took criticism of something inappropriate I had inadvertenly done really hard but I am eternally grateful to the few people who reached out and gently took me to one side to tell me what was wrong. WHile it did help me change my behaviour and make me think twice before opening my mouth it hasn’t really changed my inner self much if at all.
Ooh, this is going to be a great new series! My eyes definitely move all over the place, and I have a hard time keeping them still. I really cannot grasp how NTs seem to be able to fix their gaze on another person’s eyes for such a long time. Not only does eye contact overstimulate me, but it also requires so much self-control and inhibition to keep my eyes focused in one place. They’re naturally drawn to movement and various interesting things. Me not making eye contact has nothing to do with being antisocial. It’s really annoying how that’s the pervasive view.
That video was a bit hard to watch. If there hadn’t been that lady’s voice over, I never wouldn’t thought that the ASD kids were interacting in atypical or unsocial ways. It was hard to hear her put a value judgment on them, when she clearly just wasn’t reading them correctly. It made me feel kind of sad for those kids. They’re probably being put into all types of early intervention stuff that will try and “help” make them behave in more “normal” ways. In the video, they also seemed overwhelmed by sensory stuff and too much attention. The NTs were interpreting it all wrong. *sigh* We have such a long way to go.
I’m excited about doing this series. There’s some really surprising stuff in Asperger’s paper and I’m excited to try to tie the origins of autism spectrum conditions to how we see them today.
That’s a great point about eye contact requiring inhibition! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes so much sense.
I found the video really hard to watch too. It’s so othering to see behavior and mannerisms that feel very natural to me being described as needing to be fixed. Especially since it felt like the experts involved were so bad at reading the body language that the autistic kids are clearly projecting (at least to us, I guess).
Yeah, the inhibition is one thing I’ve really noticed during the few times that I’ve made myself work to keep eye contact (typically during interviews or first dates). My eyes naturally want to dart all over the place, especially if there is a lot of background movement, and I have to force myself to NOT to that in order to keep them still. Rather painful at times. Ah, the things I do to try and keep with social norms.
I experience the same thing. Sometimes the urge to glance around reaches the level of a compulsive feeling and is nearly impossible to stop. Thinking of it as an inhibition issue is really helpful.
Cynthia- and others- can you please elaborate about the body language? Can you guys give me some specific examples. Like are any of the kids wanting interaction with the adult? If so could you pinpoint the body language that suggests this?
I recognize some of the “autistic kids'” behaviours that the interpreter was describing as what you see with kids with attention deficits- which i know also exists in autism-such as not responding to their name. And I can certainly tell that the kid with the penguin did not want to be disrupted-sadly i used to do this to my son :(. Being a first time mom, I was over excited to show him what the toy was meant to do, but later realized that he wanted to explore the toy his own way which is fair!
actually Svenga does a good job of describing what might be going on with the kid with the penguin. Ahhhh, now i see.
As to the video. I really didn’t like how ‘in your face’ one of the adults was. As soon as he stopped thrusting his face at the boy and looked to the side, the boy ventured a look. Scary stuff – in some ways I feel glad to be overlooked as a child
And interesting what Rae says about value judgements. My brother has a cosmetically adjusted alternating squint and he has to choose to either see the person he is talking to but look like he is looking over their shoulder OR not look at them but appear to be looking directly at them. Most of the time he does the socially acceptable thing, which means he misses a fair bit of non verbal stiff that’s going on. But that’s the NT world we live in.
Oh, that sounds disorienting to say the least. It’s sad that he has to choose to make other people feel comfortable while sacrificing “incoming data” that he could make use of.
Yes! I noticed that too. There was a definite double standard in how the adults approached the autistic and nonautistic kids to play with them.
I found the video pretty painful to watch, to be honest.
I have a vague memory of finding the way people like that “played” with me like that – in Kindergarten and later – very confusing – they want me to play with this thing and then they take it away?
It moves and then it finally stands still and instead of letting me observe and examine it it until I am satisfied with what I am seeing – after which I usually would have tried to reengange the motion mechanism or asked someone else to do it – they just take it away and restart it?
I empathized with the little boy with the penguin very strongly.
I do the roaming, too. A lot. Staring at a spot usually means I stopped focusing on things in my vision and am just “staring off into space” Everything moving draws my gaze.
Is the constant eye movement maybe a kind of stimming? Or a reaction to the overstimulation around us, so the exact opposite of it?
Words are difficult today.
As to the comparison between the two interpretations of the “autistical gaze”: You have way more grace than I have, and I found what you wrote beautiful, but right now am not able to voice my thoughts in a comprehensive way so I shall just thank you for it.
The video is hard to watch. I wish that the people who work with autistic kids would read our responses to it. For example, your observation that you’d like to have time to observe things and figure them out on your own is a great one. What a fantastic way to learn and isn’t that what play is – a fun way of learning about our world? There’s nothing wrong with preferring to learn about things through observation and exploration rather than by interaction and sharing.
I’m hoping to tease apart the context that underlies some of the ways people commonly think about autism today and where that comes from. So I’m having to suspend judgment to a degree. It would be easy to lash out at Kanner and Asperger, but they were working with very limited models at the time. The experts today, on the other hand, have no excuses for continuing to perpetrate these myths and half-truths. Hopefully that’s what will come across as part of this series.
For me, I find the eye movement is often an attempt to identify things I’m hearing. I have very little auditory filtering, so I hear all the things. When I hear something I can’t place, I need to identify what it is so I know whether I should be alarmed or not.
This makes me seem really jumpy, but it is incredibly useful and despite being a major pain when I’m trying to follow conversations, I wouldn’t do away with it because it’s saved my bacon more than a few times: it has saved me from, among other things, burning down my apartment (twice), having my parents’ house burn down (four times), flooding the kitchen with the dishwasher (three times), and flooding the basement with the washing machine (once). Not to mention the many, many times it’s saved me from getting hit as a pedestrian in a city where drivers don’t know how to winter even though we get winter every year and where drivers also think that pedestrians should yield to them and not the other way ’round at intersections.
When I was a teenager I went to an alternative school that was far from home so I did home stays with families that had children attending the same school. This was fine for me because while I did miss my mother it got me away from my dad and allowed me more time to spend doing what I wanted. The interesting part was living with families that were strange to me, because sometimes I was strange to them. I clearly remember how at dinner when I was seventeen, as we waited for the food to be placed on the table, I would stare at the spoon beside the plate of the boy sitting across from me. He would ask, “Why are you staring at my spoon?” and I would answer, “Because it seems like a socially acceptable place for me to let my eyes rest while we wait for the food.”
This conversation happened every night for months.
Hard to watch what is being done to the children with autistic traits in the video, especially the second little boy: that looked like torture to me! Watching the supposedly normal children, I was quite astonished to see how much they depended on being assured by their mothers that they were being seen by them. I have heard my partner and my children tell me often enough that they were a bit annoyed by me asking for information that was obvious to them. My first child, taking the WISC-R in the early teens, complained to me that there was really no valid reason to answer all those stupid questions, the answers were known to everyone. That’s how the verbal score came to be at the low level.
I very much agree with ischemgeek that investigating the cause for unexpected noise and movement noticed out of the corner of the eye makes life safer. I would add that it makes me a lot calmer, too, because I don’t need to obsess about possible danger.
Watching the nonautistic kids made me wonder a lot about how my daughter and I interacted when she was little. She’s not autistic and I assume she did all of those social interaction type things, but I have no idea whether I responded as expected. She turned out pretty good so I guess whatever I did worked, but seeing the kids in those videos side by side makes it quite obvious how different autistic versus nonautistic interaction is, even in toddlers.
I think I’m drawn to looking around for sounds as well as motion – especially when I’m walking down the street or in crowded public places. Maybe that’s why electric cars frighten me so much. I’m a lot less likely to see a car in a parking lot if I don’t hear it first.
This conversation happened every night for months.
Did you think it was odd that he kept asking you? It’s funny how we develop habits like that and don’t really see the unusualness in them until much later.
Yes. That whole hindsight thing is fascinating. I will never know if the boy was teasing me or if he was genuinely curious about my unusual gaze, but as he was a boy that I went to school with, I didn’t want to give him a reason to make fun of me like by lets say, accidentally staring at him during dinner. As the months passed I think it became more of a bizarre social ritual to replace, “Hi, how was your day?” He was an unconventional person too but after my earlier school experiences I was very cautious.
I’m almost wondering if he was on the spectrum too and it was a kind of scripted or routine conversation that developed for him. It’s so hard when we can’t read the difference between teasing or genuine questions. I’m always getting tripped up by that and then feeling embarrassed when it’s obvious to everyone but me that I’ve gotten it wrong.
When I think back that could well have been the case. That whole family was unconventional. The boy in question had a huge collection of rusted metal, the mum had lots of friends with schizophrenia and they often called the house and I dated the younger brother for a while after I graduated and he had massive problems with social anxiety and IBS. I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective before.
First off, let me say this blog is awesome. I’ve not been officially diagnosed as having ASD but I relate to so many of the posts made. I found this blog almost two months ago but haven’t had the bravery to jump in on the conversation 🙂 It’s just so nice to know there are other people operating on the same plane.
Now about the eye contact and such, that’s interesting. As someone else mentioned, I tend to find I watch the periphery or am intently focused on one small area. When I’m stressed, I’m more focused on that small area; it feels like I have tunnel vision and lose contact with my peripheral vision. As I become increasingly stressed the field of vision shrinks until eventually I go into a ‘shut down’ mode. I’m not interested in anything going on around me because I can’t ‘see’ enough to understand the surroundings in any form.
The video seemed inherently bizarre to me. Frankly, the NT children made me uncomfortable, I kept glancing away. The autistic children I could read a little better, especially the boy with the penguin. Goodness, can’t they let a person stop and observe something? Just because you don’t immediately wind it back up again or ask someone to do so shouldn’t be a problem. If its moving all over the place how can I possibly digest all the information it’s conveying?
Also, the adults’ manners with the two groups of children were very different. It’s like instantly they became stiff and calculating around the ASD kids and it wouldn’t surprise me if part of it is due to the presence of a parent.
Welcome! I’m so glad you got up the courage to comment. It’s always nice to hear from people who have been quietly reading for a while.
I definitely experience a kind of tunnel vision when I’m stressed, especially in a new or unfamiliar situations where I have to accomplish some sort of task, like finding the counter and ordering food in an unfamiliar sandwich shop. Everything seems to turn into an overwhelming amount of detail and I can only focus on small parts of the environment at a time as I process each one.
The adults in the video definitely treated the two groups of kids differently. I know the video wasn’t research, but watching them interact suggests how strong investigator bias might be in research on autistic kids. The expectations from the two sets of kids was obviously different from the start. I’m relieved that other people noticed all of the things I noticed in that video without me pointing it out. I thought maybe I was being overly sensitive when I first watched it.
Thanks for this, much appreciated. Very interesting. I haven’t watched the video yet, too much stimulation this early in the morning, but I shall. My eyes roam a lot, but I always thought it was because I was collecting information to make sense of things – patterns, you know 🙂 Recently I went to someone’s place I had only been to once a year ago and said, ‘Oh you have a new oven’. She was surprised so I made up a reason for noticing and didn’t comment on the other changes. My eyes roam over people when interacting with them too, especially new people, but I also stare and have for a long time. I am looking to see which behaviours match others and which ones don’t i.e. is the person trustworthy? And I have to collect and test out each twitch they make to see how it fits with previous information I have collected as it’s really important for me to try and predict their behaviour. This can make some people uncomfortable, but it’s just the way I’ve learned to cope with not being able to read them instantly.
Collecting information to discern patterns in the environment is another great explanation! I love how much the comments are adding to my initial ideas about this topic. 🙂 Also, yeah, commenting that someone has a new oven will definitely raise eyebrows. I think part of it is just the nonsequitir quality of those kinds of observations. People on the receiving end don’t know what to do with them.
This is very interesting because just today I was at the park with my two and a half year old ASD child and I witnessed him initiate contact with a little girl: he brought her his doll to play with. He then went on too put sand in a baby swing. When she came over to help, and showed him a fist full of sand, hee wandered over a nearby fence to play alone.
Many would interpret that as anti social, but I could see he has a smile on his face and his body and head were slightly inclined backwards, hoping she would follow him. He was clearly (to me) delighted with the interaction and wanting to extend it, he just lacked the skill to engage her interest or let her know he was interested!
It’s cool that you can read his body language and his intentions. The type of interaction you describe is kind of why I think we often end up befriending people who are the caretaker or mentoring sorts or who are a bit different like us. The average kid will completely miss out on our friendship making signals and wander off to find someone “easier” to play with.
Now that partner and I have learned in our fifties that we are both autistic, we ask to be seated in restaurants next to each other or at an angle so that we look more or less the same way and see more or less the same things/persons. I have played with (my) children in exactly that way: sharing the interest in something means looking the same way, i.e. where the object of interest, be it a thing, an action or whatever, is located. Communication about the interesting thing can happen through words or action together, no eye contact needed to share the interest. For me, that is where the difference with the supposedly normal children lays: they need to confirm through eye contact that sharing. Why is eye contact needed to be certain of the shared interest if I get the confirmation through words or action? (As I have already mentioned in earlier comments, I heavily depend on peripheral vision because eye contact hurts. Years ago I have criticised with harsh words a friend who demanded of his children to look him into the eyes when admonishing them for some minor glitch.)
That’s a great strategy! My husband usually takes the seat facing out toward the restaurant if that’s an option, because the commotion doesn’t distract him.
I think that the need to communicate more explicitly, rather than through social body language, is why my daughter and I have such an open, honest relationship. She seemed to realize early on that if she wanted me to get something, she was going to have to say it or ask for confirmation. Amazing how adaptable allistic kids are to their autistic parents and how it often doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s the other way around.
Ask for confirmation: that is what I am used to, with family. To me, it is obvious that I do not need to explicitely state that I agree with something because I know that I agree. Yet, I can’t look into the mind of partner and see that he agrees. This is what a journalist of The New York Times has describeb as “stilted and laborious” conversation after spending time with two autistic young people.
This does not mean that my children were not able to ask in various ways for what they needed. From the videos I remember a child throwing an object down on the floor, the adult picks the object up repeatedly. When my children did this, I sat them on the floor because they seemed to be in need of movement or at least an end to being restrained in a chair or on my lap. I was confident that they would ask me to be taken up again and that I would understand their request.
This series sounds like it’ll be really good stuff. 🙂
When it comes to autism and the stuff autistic people do, there does seem to be a lot of focus on “not doing” or “doing wrong” rather than what we DO do, or WHY we do what we do.
I’m really looking forward to the series, especially with all of the great comments on this post! I’m all about the WHY. 🙂
I do look around frequently if there are a lot of distractions (and occasionally blurt out thoughts about them), but, I also tend to gaze away if I am either concentrating on listening or thinking about what I am going to say. Looking at a person while they are talking is more distracting and I get less of what they are saying, though I’ve learned to do it through specific instruction, if I remember, but if I’m really listening I will be “staring into space.” Likewise if I have to concentrate to think of something, I tend to look off, not exactly “at” something but into some quiet area. The other day a couple of neighbor kids were over visiting and they asked me something that I had to stop and think about. I shifted my gaze out the window into the distance as I said, well…uhh. Then I stopped as I realized they all had abruptly turned and looked out in the direction of where I was looking, automatically. I then quickly explained that I wasn’t looking “at” something, I was just looking over there while I thought. They seemed a bit confused but it was all kind of funny :D. I realized that people who are around me all the time (unlike these kids) do not wonder what’s suddenly going on outside the window because presumably they are used to me doing this. Likewise I don’t think I would be swiveling around to look in the direction someone else was looking unless there were additional clues that something was really going on over there. Adults generally think I am “in my own world,” or spacing out or not paying attention if this happens.
There is a certain point at which I will try to block out what is going around me if it becomes too much, but most of the time this is not what I’m doing. I remember watching a video where a woman was talking about the trials of her autistic, mostly non-verbal child, and how difficult it was and painful to deal with the kid, saying very negative things, all while the child was wandering around in the background (within easy hearing distance) becoming noisier and more agitated sounding. Then the child came over and tried to hug the mother, who kept talking about her as if she wasn’t there. It was quite painful to watch. It was obvious she assumed the kid wasn’t listening to any of this because she didn’t adopt the “normal” listening behavior, but to me it seemed the child was in fact reacting to what she was saying.
I do the gazing away to concentrate thing too. I think, in part, this is what Kanner was referring to when he mentioned social withdrawal. It’s just easier to listen if I fix my gaze on an inanimate object rather than on the person’s face. It’s frustrating that people assign so many other meanings to our need to look away when concentrating.
And I think I know the (horrible) video that you’re talking about. Or I’ve seen one exactly like it. 😦 The presumption that nonspeaking children don’t understand what’s being said about them is incredibly damaging.
Very familiar. I do that looking off into the distance when I am thinking about something or answering a question. It helps me concentrate too. Years ago I worked with a therapist who mentioned that looking to the right or left had to do with where I was accessing memory (not related to AS). What I do however is much more like what you are talking about. I think about whatever it is, and often will answer the question while I am still looking off in that other direction. I’ve always processed that way.
I also blurt so to speak too. I can be in the middle of a conversation with someone on a particular topic, and then jump to something else completely, without missing a beat. Some people get lost when I make that transition, our oldest daughter (in her 30’s) and I do it all the time talking with one another and don’t miss a beat and totally know what we are talking about. I can do that with my sister too. Others look at me oddly.
I’ve heard others refer to it as “squirrel” related to ADD – ADHD but I don’t know that it is specific to that.
If I am driving and find that it is a busy time of day and there is a lot of traffic, i.e. lots going on around me, I have to turn off the radio and really quiet things around me so I can fully focus on driving. This is most true coming to a set of lights and turning into traffic.
Love your comment on driving. In recent times there has developed the narrow view that cellphones in cars are a distraction – which is true of course! But, just having someone else in the car (wife for example) endlessly saying things and trying to make conversation is even worse. It is highly distracting for me. I find that driving is a full-time job. There is no room for distractions of any kind if one is to drive safely. I have to be aware of all that is going on around me in the car and on the road. A valuable lesson I learned while being taught to drive is to keep one eye on the car immediately in front and the other (so-to-speak) on what several cars ahead of them are doing (noticing trends).
Would it be strange for me to refer the Kennedy Kreiger Institute to this post and its comments? I seriously believe that a lot of professionals in this field just have NO IDEA of the inner life of autism, and don’t realize they have resources like this to find out. Autism touches many levels of my extended family, and blogs like yours have really been such a help and have changed my life.
Because of personal experience, I am drawn to the field of autism-related education/advocacy, more so to the adult/business/professional side than school level, but I’m almost afraid to take a class because I would be approaching it from the non-pathologizing perspective of autism. This type of video reinforces the fear that I would be disregarded and flunked out, but I feel the viewpoint needs to be introduced to this level of professionals. Does anyone have any experience or thoughts on this? Thanks so much.
I for one would really appreciate it if you did this. I appreciate it would take some courage, but they clearly have _no_ idea and need to learn. The best way to do that is from people like us 🙂 Many thanks indeed. One small step!
I don’t know. On my part, once I post something, I assume it’s out there for the world to read and share as they like. Whether the people at Kennedy Kreiger would be interested in what’s be said here . . . I have no idea. I would hope so, since they’re one of the premiere autism centers in the country and specialize in the study of autism.
Absolutely loved your article. Pray tell, how do I get my hands on a copy of “both Hans Asperger’s and Leo Kanner’s original papers on autism”? Are they in English?
I accessed Kanner’s article through a university database but you can probably find it available somewhere online (Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child 2, 217-250 (1943)). Asperger’s work is published in the book “Autism and Asperger Syndrome” edited by Uta Frith.
I started reading your blog a few months ago because a lot of what you write seem to be valid for me too. I often think that you just put into words how I feel or perceive the world to be. Do you know anything about Nonverbal Learning Disability? I was diagnosed 3 years ago, at the age of 43, but I’ve had these challeges all my life. There seems to be a lot of confisusion about what NVLD really is. Some say it’s inside ASD, while others get angry if you suggest they are. That happned when someone tried to debate this in a closed facebook group a while back. When I read your blog, and watch your videos on you tube, I think to myself that you describe me and my daughter as well. She might be autistic, but they say it’s too early to say. She has the preliminary diagnosis atypical autism. Personally I think she’s shown signs all along, and that video you linked to confirm that, but help is hard to get. I guess the main struggles for me are eye contact, a disinterest in social interaction and the sound of multiple people talking. It’s hard to give people what they expect, and they do expect quite a bit of social interaction.
There’s a lot of overlap in traits between ASD and NVLD. I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about NVLD and don’t understand how it is diagnosed. It seems to be a more common diagnosis in Europe than in the US. In fact, in the US I’ve seen NVLD used as a catch-all term in education to mean ASD, ADHD and other disabilities or learning differences that aren’t verbally-based. So yes, it’s very confusing.
I hope you’re able to get services for your daughter before too long. In the US, there is a huge emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention, though girls tend to be diagnosed later than boys.
I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful and took the time to comment. It’s always good to hear from readers that I haven’t “met” yet. 🙂
The ASD kid knew how to use a phone. The other kid couldn’t even handle lipstick. I think the examiners saw what they wanted to see. This is pure speculation.
I tend to agree with you.
I have to agree with a lot of what everybody wrote above. It’s painfully obvious that the adults were interacting in different ways with each set of children. And twisting their interpretation (one child smiles and so she is showing signs of social interaction, another one coos and makes happy sounds when tickled but she is not showing signs of social interaction? One child goes somewhere and you follow him, another one goes somewhere and you say he is not paying attention?).
For me, it was also strange to realize that I could mostly read both sets of behaviours and alternately identify with one or the other. I remember, as a child (older than one year old, but I was told I always did that), having periods when I looked for social interaction while playing in the ways they pictured with the NT children, and periods when I was happy to play alone and actually preferred to do it. Actually, I also had periods when I was happy to simply look at things and think about them and do nothing (just thinking and not reacting to the environment in visible ways), which a nurse once took as a sign of mental delay (and told my mother so). I am lucky to have shown both NT and non-NT behaviours and precocious learning abilities, so my family and doctor did not think I was mentally delayed. I was surprised to see in this video that the expected behaviour of a small child is to be always drawing the attention of others. I thought they alternated behaviours from a very young age…
Finally, I found myself drawing the possibly offensive parallel I always draw when watching small children: they’re just like the cats and dogs I have met in my life. They have different personalities (just like cats and dogs) and are far more intelligent than we usually give them credit for, it’s just that we usually don’t take the time to understand their natural language. I actually learned a lot by watching cats and dogs, and some individuals (on each species) have very different natural languages than others. Why don’t we realize that there may be more than one “natural behaviour” for people?
I didn’t get the tickling thing at all! So confusing what is deemed appropriate interaction or not.
I think as a child I was pretty independent and self-sufficient. Not necessarily in my own world but definitely not as socially attention seeking as the kids in the video. Because this was long before Aspergers existed, it was common to label kids like me shy.
I laughed at your dog/cat parallel because I’ve occasionally thought the same thing and am afraid to actually say it out loud because I’m sure it comes across as offensive. I remember once when I was teaching martial arts to little kids around the time I was also putting my dog through her first obedience class. One day one of the kids was really giving me a hard time and I just said “Sit!” in the tone of voice I’d been using daily with my dog and he was so surprised that he did. The parallel was immediately obvious and I felt kind of bad for noticing. 😀
I usually avoid eye contact because I pick up too much emotion from the other person. It helps me be more rational. I feel like eye contact is almost too personal for an aquantance.
With random strangers, I have no idea the appropriate length of time to hold their gaze. It’s just too much information to process so I might actively avoid eye contact when I’m tired. Other times, I’ll pretend to be social and blunder through awkwardly.
I actively use eye contact when I need someone’s attention, so I can give instructions. I’ll usually check to see if they’re paying attention over the discourse of what I’m saying. I also use eye contact to display sincerity.
I have a lot of difficulty with knowing the right amount of eye contact and more than a fleeting bit makes me so uncomfortable. And reading your last paragraph I’m realizing that I have no idea how to receptively interpret or use eye contact. I can’t believe I never gave that any thought before!
Thankfully, I went into the military when I was 17. They taught me exactly how I should behave in certain situations all the way down to body posture. They also perfected the 1,000 yard stare which I happily employed whenever they spoke to me. Unfortunately, civilians don’t play by the same rules, so it was hard to figure out what everyday people needed from me. Mostly, I’ve been told that I’m cold, indifferent, and ambitious. Now I think I understand why they thought that.
That video is super stressful to watch. The narrator was making a lot of assumptions about the motives of the children. It seemed to me the NT child was looking to the adults to see if there were specific instructions they needed to follow (put the round block in the round hole, etc). The autistic child was actually testing the toy to see how it worked and all it could do. Everyone kept trying to distract the child from learning. I think also that the evaluators had little idea of the parent child relationship. If the mom says the child’s name so often, to no purpose, the child tunes her out, then how is that an indication that child is autistic. As an adult, if I were focusing on a task at hand and someone tried to distract me for no good reason, I’d get really annoyed.
I think that adjusting to civilian life after the military is pretty typical? My husband did two years of mandatory service in his home country as a young man and said it was very difficult to readjust to being a civilian after all of the structure he’d grown accustomed to.
What you say about how the kids approached play is what I and others here saw too. And we need people who think both ways! I don’t see why the observant, experimental kid has to be fixed. Those are great, useful traits.
Hmm. I am aware that I don’t make “normal” eye contact, but I think I have the opposite problem.The eyes just don’t give me any useful information. When it was first mooted that I was on the autism spectrum and most likely Asperger’s Syndrome, I was determined to prove that I was “normal”. I found a number of online tests that I was certain would prove me right. There was one test that had me absolutely stumped. That test was the Mind in the Eyes test (http://kgajos.eecs.harvard.edu/mite/). The first time I did that test I got a score of 6 out of a possible 36. I was sure the test was wrong, so I tried repeatedly for the next hour trying to get a “good” score. Results ranged from 6 to 14. In other words, no better than choosing randomly.
It does sort of explain why I was often reprimanded for not looking at someone when they were talking to me and why, when I was looking at them, I was reprimanded for being defiant.
I have just found a different version of the test that provides instant feedback for each set of eyes. Even with the correct option highlighted, I’m often not able to recognise it. The most glaring example would be one set of female eyes that are supposed to be flirtatious. I identified them as being hostile. No wonder I was so unsuccessful with women in my younger days!
Oops, the URL for that site is http://www.questionwritertracker.com/quiz/61/Z4MK3TKB.html
I’m terrible at interpreting the minds eye test. I’m both mildly face blind and I can’t tell what people might be thinking. What I do get is a lot of emotion, but I have no idea what the emotion is. I start mirroring people and I feel agitated. It’s like seeing too much going on in a room or hearing too many sounds. I get too many emotions and no interpretation.
I don’t get useful information from eye contact either. I might as well be looking at a person’s shoes for how helpful eyes are to me. Mostly I just feel like the person is looking into my soul and I can’t wait to look away.
Ohh, that reminded me. When I was a child/teen I couldn’t bear people with blue eyes looking into my eyes (or at all, really). I got the feeling that they could read my thoughts. I do really enjoy looking at people’s faces, I like to study bone structure and work out who they look like. Unfortunately, I don’t cope well with either masks or disfigurement, both worry me and make me feel ill.
That is interesting! Like you I feel far more uncomfortable with looking into people’s eyes when they have lightly coloured eyes than darkly coloured ones. I used to have a close friend with really light blue eyes and I couldn’t stand looking at them. My partner has dark brown eyes and I don’t have any problems there. My entire family is blue/grey eyed, so based on familiarity I would have less trouble with blue eyed people, but the opposite is true!
I’ve never had the feeling that my eyes were a sort of “window to my soul” so that’s never been an issue. I do find it uncomfortable to look directly into another’s eyes, but I think it is because of social conditioning. Being chastised for not looking at the face of a speaker, and then being more strongly chastised for staring/being defiant was extremely confusing. To this day I still don’t know what is appropriate, and occasionally someone will utter “Huh? or “What did I say?” (when I’m staring at them) or “Are you listening?” or “Am I boring you?” (when I’m not making enough eye contact). But on the whole, my mimicry seems to be acceptable to NTs.
I have found one stare that other people don’t seem to pick up on. In social situations where there is more than one person speaking nearby, I tend to stare at the lips of the speaker I am concentrating on. While I’m not able to fully lip read, the combination of lip movement and voice helps me filter that person’s words from all the rest. I guess it’s not a “full” stare, as in such circumstances there’s likely to be a lot of activity going on around us, so my eyes frequently make momentary glances away. My guess is that simply looking at any part of the speaker’s face is sufficient for him/her to be satisfied I’m paying attention, and the momentary glances away are enough to avoid the perception of staring.
Spot on. That’s how I have always felt. Looking into someones eyes, and letting them look into mine is so deeply personal to me. It is like they are looking into my soul, seeing me much too personally. I can’t wait to look away as well. My favorite personal possession is a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Then I can be looking away, and not feel like I am going to be called out for not looking because they can’t well where my eyes are focused.
Thank goodness for yourself and other spectrum writers who are exposing many of the myths and misunderstandings neurotypicals (or whatever we want to call them) have about autism and Aspergers. I agree wholeheartedly that most people on the autism spectrum long to connect and are very attuned to their environment, but may withdraw because of a) lack of understanding of how to interact (and they’ve been burned before), and b) sensory overstimulation.
Also true for me. Part of the discomfort that I feel when looking into someones eyes, or having them try to look into mine is not knowing what to do with myself. I feel so lost and out of place, socially bungling. I wonder maybe if they can’t look into my eyes they also won’t be aware of how out of place I am feeling and it might be visible in my eyes, like a deer caught in the headlights.
Now that you mention it, I feel so much more comfortable talking to my family when I’m doing something and looking at everything but their eyes. Don’t feel as stressed. It might have something to do with sensory processing: if I’m not looking at another person, I’m not focusing on analyzing them as much; I’m focusing on what I’m saying. I find myself doing the “staring into the distance” bit when something doesn’t make sense to me; I need to focus all of my energies on making it make sense.
Yes! My daughter and I have some of our best conversations in the car when one of us is driving.
I really enjoy your blog. It makes me aware of things I never noticed before in myself.
That video was very upsetting for me. There was a clear difference in the way the adults treated the autistic kids vs the typical kids. It gave me flashbacks to when i was little and someone would snatch a toy out of my hand and show me how to play with it the ‘right’ way. When that boy with the phone dropped to the floor it reminded me of the times I did the same thing. After being ‘corrected’ so many times you just feel depleted like a balloon that suddenly lost all of its air.
In reference to the autistic gaze: I have been observing myself last couple days and I realized i do tend to look at the whole field of view at one time rather then looking directly at something. I noticed as I was walking across the room at work my gaze was soft taking in everything at one time. I would only look directly at something if it seemed out of place, moved suddenly or stood out in some other way. I never noticed before that I do that.
Someone earlier mentioned a problem with computer glasses. (At first I was confused because I didn’t know what computer glasses meant. I wondered if computer glasses were some new technology that corrects vision using a computer chip rather than traditional lenses. After a bit of head scratching i came to the conclusion they probably meant reading glasses.) Anyway, in high school when I had to get glasses i was completely disorientated while wearing them because there was a small clear space in the middle where the lenses were and all around the lenses in my peripheral vision was blur. I couldn’t walk with them because I got motion sickness from it. Not only did it make me feel sick but I couldn’t figure out how to walk. For some reason not having access to my peripheral vision made me not know where there ground was in front of me so i kept tripping, I finally got contact lenses.
I noticed yesterday that when going up or down stairs I have to touch the wall or the railing – something- so I can keep track of where my body is other wise I will trip or suddenly fall backwards.
Oh, I could never walk with my glasses on either and I never considered that it might be because my gaze darts around a lot. Great observation! Contacts were much better for me too.
What you describe about noticing anything that’s changed or out of place is really characteristic of people on the spectrum too. In his original case studies, Kanner repeatedly mentioned how the kids he was evaluating would immediately notice if anything was different about his office or if the toys he gave them to play with changed from visit to visit while emphasizing that they didn’t seem to be taking in much in particular until something was awry. I identified with that a lot because I seem to notice minor changes that no one else does, especially if the changes are to “irrelevant” background details in an environment.
Oh my goodness. More learning! I have this same issue and thought it was some horrible part of getting old. Like many things it’s simply that I “passed” for years and now just can’t adapt as quickly. (Presbyopia of the brain and body?) I am critically aware of this same issue with stairs EVERY SINGLE DAY. And I’m tripping more than ever because of it. Thanks so much for sharing this in your comment! It made my day.
I always reach for the railing when using the stairs. Not sure if it is depth perception or what it is. I trip when there is nothing there to trip over. It’s like my feet will have a mind of their own and I find myself flat on my face. I’ve had what I call “tangled feet” for as long as I can remember. Sprinting, jumping, hurdles in school were not my friend.
Sure, Asperger made quite a number of assumptions (the original version of his text can be found free of charge). His language is very much based in his time, his descriptions of behaviour observed are coloured by an authoritative stile of education normal at the time and still in vigour in many parts of the world today, i.e. children were assumed to function upon orders in classes of 40 children or more, rote learning was assumed to be the only way (an economically viable way of making available minimal education to the masses; living in rich, highly developed countries we may have forgotten that). I remember that my teacher told the whole class that he would insist on teaching more grammar to improve spelling and interpunction, that’s where I zoned out: I had no problem with either and thus to the day know nothing about the grammar of my native language. Yet, that made me fail in the upper classes in French, no grammar there equals no spelling.
Asperger, though, is very cautious in his wording when it comes to describing ‘his’ boys as deliberately withdrawn. He repeatedly insists on informing the reader that the boys are quite capable of understanding the adults working with them and that they even can rather accurately describe attitudes. For me, another important aspect is that he includes the family history of the boys. I am very much struck by the description of the first boy’s mother: Asperger seems to understand her behaviours as much as he understands her son. Later on he, I agree, seems to have forgotten that and starts out on a first version of that ‘extreme male brain’ thing that Mr Baron-Cohen has shared with the whole world. I can find excuses for Asperger, though…
Just to be clear: I perfectly know the grammar of my native language, I speak, read, write and understand without mistakes. I just refused, from the teachers explanation, to learn to talk and write about grammar (metacognition).
Yes, I think both Kanner and Asperger were somewhat hamstrung by the limited information they had and the beliefs of the time. Although they were working around the same time and had some startlingly different conclusions.
The family histories in both papers are fascinating! If anyone things that autistic people haven’t existed for centuries, they need only go read about the parents and grandparents of these kids who were being diagnosed in the 1930s to see otherwise.
You might want to allow yourself some fun going back even further: read Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent. And she isn’t the only one that’s got tales to tell.
I am convinced that I found characters in many of the books I’ve read that taught me I’m not as weird as that. Trying to find out, I have recently re-read two books that I just loved thirty years ago, and yep, I found what I was looking for. Autism has existed since books have been written, at least.
It’s great to know someone also think that the children would be good observers. One thing I noticed from daily journal writing is how unusual my observations are. I cannot manage things, but I notice important bits of information that would be useful to, say, leaders.
(Argh this is the third time I’ve had to re-write a comment because the site told me it couldn’t be posted, my prospective memory is poor and so I forget almost every time that I intended to copy the text to clipboard before I post. I wonder if there’s a way to add a note to comment forms saying copy the text before submitting. GreaseMonkey script?)
I don’t find it natural to know when to look into people’s eyes and when not to. I have memories of when I was very young being told to make eye contact and finding it uncomfortable and intense, and then learning I could look above the eyes or at some other facial feature and no one told me off. Later I had problems with being told I was staring, making too much eye contact.
My current strategy is to make sure I look at the person at any point there’d be emphasis, when I’m pausing or asking a question, telling a joke etc. It’s kind of like ‘punctuation’ or the ‘check in on’ the other person. Especially important for emphasis. Same goes for when they’re talking to me, if something sounds like it’s emphasised, a joke or a question or a pause, I’ll look towards the person’s eyes and react in an appropriate way. Otherwise I’ll look away while thinking, usually at the gestures the person’s making. This seems to work. My assessment report says I made appropriate eye contact anyway 🙂
If the other person isn’t looking towards my eyes at the times I expect them to be, I’ll verbally check if they’re listening, and if they’re actually happy and fine then I’ll relax and not think so much about doing eye contact ‘correctly’, probably look away more when I’m trying to listen/concentrate. I do still try to look at their face and body language to make sure they’re not showing signs of being uncomfortable though. (I don’t think I’m very good at doing this, and I easily lose context and forget, but I’ve definitely got better than I was when I wasn’t thinking about it or checking at all).
It’s interesting that neither Kanner or Asperger thought about how eye gaze might be about not understanding the cultural rules about when to look and when not to – this is social learning and something that very much varies by culture.
As for peripheral vision; I’ve noticed that a lot of my stimming involves making rapid movements in my peripheral vision, flapping a card with a picture on it, or something shiny on one side or shaking a stim toy. I also get easily over stimulated and sensory overloaded by bright spots of light in a relatively dark room, especially in my peripheral vision, so it seems that mine’s particularly sensitive. Or at least as sensitive as most of my senses are (I have a separate diagnosis of Sensory Modulation Disorder: Sub-type Over-responsive now).
Ack, sorry about WordPress. I don’t know why it does that sometimes. Posting on LJ trained me to habitually copy my comments before I hit the post button. I have the basic wordpress-hosted version of wordpress so sadly I can’t modify it. Some day I should upgrade to the self-hosted version so I have more options.
I learned something important from your comment because I never consciously thought about using eye contact for emphasis. My general strategy is always “hmmm, it’s been a while since I made eye contact so I should to that now” which is probably confusing to the other person in its randomness. I’m going to try to focus more on being purposeful, rather than just maintaining a certain frequency.
That’s interesting about how you visually stim in your peripheral vision. I’ve been paying more attention to how I use my peripheral vision since I noticed that I was trying to use it to lessen the sensory overload of that IMAX 3D movie last weekend. Nothing conclusive has jumped out at me yet, but just knowing that I just peripheral vision to reduce stimulus is a good realization for starters.
I found it was helpful to work out the *purpose* of eye contact – checking that other people are listening, understanding and interested, demonstrating emphasis and in reverse, showing the speaker that you’re listening, understanding and interested. That doesn’t mean it’s totally natural to me or always gives people the right cues, but it makes it easier to keep it to the minimum without necessarily coming across as distractingly odd.
This plugin is a lifesaver for sites like WordPress and Livejournal: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/lazarus-form-recovery/. It autosaves your comments as you type them, and lets you recover them if the form dumps thme.
Thanks! Here’s the download page with Chrome and Safari versions too:
My son though not officially diagnosed, it was suggested by the school evaluator that he has mild Asperger’s. After researching it, I can’t help but wonder if I have gone this long undiagnosed myself.
Growing up, I figured out what worked for me, but it was so often considered rude, or anti-social. I had a teacher that complained to my mom that all I did in class was stare at the ceiling, and ignore her. My mom knew better, and had the teacher ask me to relate the concept back to her. Though I was staring at the ceiling, I could repeat her words verbatim. She never bothered me again. I didn’t look at her because it was too distracting, and exhausting.
I see my son doing the same thing. Easily reaching sensory overload, however his memories are crystal clear. I too have a photographic memory, which not only includes the scene, but the scents, the sounds, and I can literally feel as if I’m back there again when I want. I do tend to “space out”, as described by many around me (I know these times are when I’m intensely focusing on things… The rest of the world seems to disappear). For me, and for what I have observed with my son, this is what we experience. I’m curious if anybody else experiences it:
We are quiet, and incredibly intent on our observations for a time. We take in ALL of the sensory stimuli around us, process, and retain the majority of it. Depending on how much of it there is, we can tolerate it up to our limit. Then sensory overload occurs, and we shut down completely. If there are lots of people, or loud noises, this happens very quickly. Both of us do best when we withdraw to a quiet place to process, and can then come back. If I can’t, this is when I appear spaced out. For my son, at first (ages 1.5 to 3) he acted out, banging his head on the floor, and throwing himself into walls. Now (age 4.5), he withdraws. Thankfully I can finally trim his nails without him acting as if I’m cutting off his fingers, vacuum, and get his haircut. He plays with the kids at preschool, but is often surprised by their negative behavior. I remember not understanding other children growing up, and was intent on figuring them out. My son was in another preschool that tried to get him to conform to their ways of teaching. I’ve been so lucky to find a school that adapted to his best way of learning, but I’ve had to constantly advocate for him.
There’s a strong genetic component and a lot of parents end up getting diagnosed after a child is diagnosed, so your suspicions about yourself may be correct. It sounds like the two of you have a lot in common, especially in the area of sensory processing. I completely know what you mean about getting that spaced out look when things are overstimulating.
Welcome to the club called “I found out when my kid was tested”…………..There are MANY of us who find out that way…and it answers so many questions we’ve had all our lives! I felt GOOD about this, but my partner who is also on the spectrum did not. Lots of pain and worry there, but for me, it was like someone dumped gems in my lap…Get a book called Oasis Guide to Aspergers….It is the bible of resources and will point you in some very useful places! It’s gonna be O.K…..it really really is… And that behavior you see at preschool? Same thing here. Awesome happy dude at home, TOTAL WHAT THE HELL happened to my kid at school. It’s all the environmental and social over load…Fluorescent lighting, bells, other kids, the room it’s self….Your kid and it sounds like YOU are on the spectrum. You can help and be the advocate. Educate and arm yourself with all the info you can get…And hang in there. It gets better. And be who you guys are…It’s good, not bad. Ther are many of us, and you do belong and so does your kid! 🙂
I cannot hear, process what I am hearing, nor remember what I heard unless I look away and point my ear at the speaker. I am not hard of hearing.
That said, I am excellent at “passing” including staring at nose bridges and unfocusing my gaze. But it doesn’t work as well and my processing fails are chalked up to ADHD (mostly by me, because people are so accepting of that and I do have that diagnosis, so I’m not lying. My non-believer physchiatrist would agree its ADHD anyway.)
Frankly, I thought it was dementia, which I often worry about because I’m so used to thinking of myself as a “lazy, crazy, space-cadet”.
It’s funny how adhd is so much more readily accepted as a reason for being distracted or other ef fails.
Just saw your post after I posted today – I am the same as paragraph 1 –
Wow! The internet helps us find answers in the most unexpected places! I’ve had to wear glasses for the past few years after a lifetime without them and have had a beast of a time adapting. I’m on my third try in contact lenses, and just this week had to send a beautiful pair of customer bifocals back to the lab. After much conversation and troubleshooting with the doctor we decided that the glare in my peripheral vision caused by the polished edge of my lenses was the issue. I thought I would get sick when I tried to move my head. Just one more in a long line of difficulties with my acutely sensitive eyesight and hearing. Getting used to the idea that I’ve lived my life with undiagnosed Aspergers for a half century is a laugh a day. Thanks SO MUCH for your wonderful sharing. I find it both well-researched and vulnerable.
Thank you for your lovely comment. I think “well researched and vulnerable” is the best compliment on my writing I’ve ever had.
I hope you’re able to find glasses or contact lenses that work for you. I encountered a similar but much less serious problem this summer when I picked up some new sunglasses for running. They had white plastic frames which I found to be an intolerable distraction. I ended up taking them back after a couple of weeks and exchanging them for my usual darker frames. I have a feeling that most people don’t even notice these things, let alone get bothered by them.
Wow, I never thought about eye sensitivity. Every time I get a pair of glasses back it feels like they are wrong. Even when I/we know that it is based on the prescription, my eyes still don’t feel like they are seeing correctly. I was told years ago that I had a mild form of exotropia, and our oldest was in vision therapy and repeated 2nd grade because of this. I never thought of acute sensitivity related to my eyes. It fits though considering that my sense of smell, hearing, and touch are very acute. Make me wonder what over sensitive eyes/vision look like on the spectrum.
God, I do this shifty eye thing all the time, especially in a new place, or a public place. Having a conversation, and then finding that I have looked away in the middle of them talking to me makes me feel rude and foolish, judging myself that I was not listening to them and the polite thing to do was to be fully present with the person in front of me.
I used to think of it as casing the room. I would sit with my back to a wall to feel more settled and so that I could see what was going on in front of me. Who was coming and going when. Even if I could not see over the booth in front of me, I would find myself looking and wandering, and not sitting still. I could hear them.
I feel like my gaze is as acute as my sense of hearing and scent/smell – as well as movement – vibration in the floors under my feet. At the same time I am aware I have areas of my body that feel like they are numb, yet they can feel touch, but it’s like the touch is coming through from a distance, if that makes any sense.
I have discomfort with eye contact, a lot of it, and when I try to look at myself or someone else directly in the face, I always feel like I am missing something. Like I can’t make both of my eyes see at the same time, and when I do look, I don’t know where to look at the face.
I am constantly looking out of my peripheral vision – I feel like I have eyes in the side of my head, or my ears sometimes because I am so aware of things to the sides of me that can distract me, and it’s not like I am trying to look, it just happens.
I do like the way that you explained it as being from any number of things, from visual stimming (never realized that was a thing) to all of the other things you mentioned.
“I don’t have a visual preference for one over the other. And this is going to sound bizarre, but if I’m staring at a person, I’m probably not registering them as a person. Often, when I’ve got a fixed stare going on, I’m not consciously aware that I’m looking at anything.”
I do the above too. I’ll be just starting off into space, not even there. I would never consciously choose to stare are someone directly in the eyes. It’s too uncomfortable – and if I do manage to do it – I am looking right through them, not at them.
I remember interviewing a daycare family for my licensed daycare which was overseen by the county I lived in. I was later told by the county that the people did not choose to go with me because I did not look them in the eye. I remember feeling bad about it, and I also remember how hard they tried to get me to look them in the eye and how uncomfortable I was with it, and avoided their gaze even more. It’s only now I realize why.
About your last paragraph, many people will assume that someone who doesn’t look them in the eye is lying, so I can see why (though not agree with) the interviewer would have been using that as a marker for a job in which a person would be entrusted with children. Presumably they are on high alert for people who would lie to gain access to children.
Wow, there’s so much in that previous paragraph that just makes me sad.
I’ve tried faking eye contact, but I think it comes across just as unsettling as my natural shifty eye contact. Like you said, it’s just uncomfortable and unnatural.
I have never been able to tell if it’s a good thing to look into someone’s eyes or not. I’ve never felt comfortable about doing it. With time I realized that sometimes when I tried it would be interpreted as sending unintended messages. I simply did not understand any of it and still don’t. I am a mess and always will be.
Story of my socially miserable life.
The eye contact thing I think is based on an input of too much information.
I almost always look down and or close my eyes in meetings when people are speaking to better understand. From there I can get a ‘plain text’ format of what I need to know.
My software can’t run the full Microsoft Word with all it’s fonts and colours.
“Autistic children do not look with a firmly fixed glance at anything, but rather, seem to perceive mainly with their peripheral field of vision.”
That sums up my trips to Walmart. I made it more intentional too after I figured out what I was doing. Peripheral vision is blurry. There are less details. If I duck my head a bit and let my peripheral vision watch my sides and front, I can take in more data with less useless information (such as how many stray hairs in eyebrows, ears, and noses are present), and I can navigate obstacles and oncoming shoppers faster and with better accuracy. I may be staring at the floor, but I’m vaguely aware there is a large patch of color representing where the floor is because I’m focusing my sight elsewhere.
And of course, I know why people get so wrapped up in eye contact. Shifty eyes means you’re up to something. Avoiding eye contact means you’re hiding something or feeling guilty or shameful over what you did. Specifically avoiding eye contact in one direction means you’re thinking while looking in the other direction means you’re lying.
Personally, I’d rather watch the hands and feet. People are more conscious of their faces and go to greater lengths to control it. Most people forget feet are for more than walking on and can carry a good bit of data.
I think it is possible to assimilate more visual data via peripheral vision. Or perhaps more descriptively, it is a simultaneous assimilation of both direct vision and peripheral. It’s like a CRT in reverse, with its beam that scans a repetitive path across the phosphorescent screen. In this case the eye is scanning the whole wonderful scene. At least that seems to be how I experience it. Of course I’m talking about a pleasant scenario here. In an unpleasant scenario I tend to defocus my vision and then it’s a case of filter mode.
The photo of the little girl is absolutely stunning!! The article looks interesting and I will get around to reading it, but that photo!!!!!
They have no idea. From my experience. Sometimes I stare for avoidance but 99% of the time it because my subconscious is transfixed on an object. Circles are the calmest BUT they are also the strongest magnet for the are
For me at age 56… it is BOTH. Sometimes it is like a hyper active “Awareness” cone over my head that teaches out around me. Especially in restuarants. I listen to all that is going on around me. Or sometimes my eyes get stuck on objects. Circles are the biggest gaze magnets.
Thank you for this informative post! This helps me make sense of some things I notice about myself.
By the way, I’m 57, diagnosed about 15 years back. And this sort of thing happens all the time. And it’s annoying.
I see my peripheral vision as a strength, espcially when driving. To the author of this blog – I am sorry for my recent rambling comments (under various headings) and the typos and so-on. The comment editor makes it hard to see what I’ve written, I often hit the wrong keys on this computer (I hate laptops).Ah-ha – I’ve suddenly discovered how to enlarge the edit window! Better! Anyway, I think I’ve said too much already – I will not comment again, just read. I have always felt alone and now is no different. I just want my cancer to end it all.
I’m sorry you feel so alone. I won’t claim you aren’t, because it’s never helped me much to be told I’m not when I still *felt* alone, but I’ll happily wrap you in a virtual blanket if you’d like.
Having also only figured I was autistic as an adult, I well remember the “well this explains so much”-feeling, how so many things finally clicked into place and yet I felt shaken to my foundations.
I hope your cancer will leave you the time and energy to find your own stability again – and your community, as well.