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. Continue reading Unpacking Asperger: Autistic Gaze→
Making eye contact–or more precisely, not making eye contact–is a big issue for people with Asperger’s. Neurotypical people seem to be especially frustrated and confused by this aspect of aspie behavior.
Even the professionals, who can offer up all sorts of theories as to why we don’t make eye contact, don’t seem to get the fundamental issue. In one study, the author pointed out that people with AS don’t make use of expressive information in the facial region of the eyes, “even when it’s available.”
That last part made me laugh. That’s like giving a Russian/Japanese dictionary to a person that can’t read either language and asking them why they aren’t using it. Just like that dictionary, the part of the facial expression around the eyes is a foreign language to an aspie.
Reading Expressions: The Eyes Test
I’m moderately good at reading facial expressions. I get the biggies like happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, and confusion. More subtle expressions–those that rely most heavily on the use of the eyes and the area around the eyes–are much harder for me. For example, on this list of 30 facial expressions, I would not have correctly identified the ashamed, concerned and contempt faces.
It’s important to note that “reading the mind in the eyes” (as the professionals call it) involves more than just the eyeballs themselves. It requires understanding how the subtle changes in the muscles around the eyes convey emotion. This becomes more obvious when you take the creatively named “Eyes Test” which requires you to use just the portion of the face between the nose and forehead. If you’re curious, you can find and take the test here:
(You can also find an interactive version called Reading the Mind in the Eyes at Test My Brain but you need to enter some demographic information to take it.)
I did surprisingly well on the test and here’s why: I cheated.
I suspect that most NTs taking this test would look at an expression and spontaneously have an idea of what the expression was. This is probably why the instructions say to choose an answer as quickly as possible.
How did I cheat? Before even looking at the expressions, I found myself reading all four possible answers. Then I looked at the expression and began the process of elimination. Here’s one of the expressions from the test with the four possible answers:
My process of elimination: I know right away that it’s not dominant or horrified. It looks more like friendly than guilty, so the answer is friendly. If I hadn’t been given four choices for each expression, there is no way I would have spontaneously provided some of the more subtle answers like insisting or uneasy.
Obviously, in a real-time social interaction, no one is going to have four possible emotional options floating around their head to help me guess at what they’re feeling. Like most aspies, I’ve learned to use other information to try to fill in the blanks when it comes to facial expressions. I often focus on a person’s mouth, which I find conveys emotions more explicitly to me than the eyes.
I can gather some additional data from a person’s voice, especially when I know the person well. When my daughter calls me, I can tell from the way she says “hi” what kind of mood she’s in and what the conversation will likely be about. Unfortunately this only works with people I know well.
Over time I build up a databank of voice qualities for a person. With enough conversations in the databank, I need only a few words to recognize the happy voice, the lying voice or the you’re-not-gonna-like-this voice.
Why Learning to Read the Eyes is Challenging for Aspies
If we can learn all of these work-arounds and hacks for reading emotion in others, why can’t adult aspies just learn to read the eyes?
There are programs to teach children how to do interpret facial expressions. But for adult aspies, it’s a bit more complicated. We’ve grown up and spent decades of our lives not making eye contact.
Are we unable to read the eyes because we don’t make eye contact and therefore don’t have a rich enough data bank to draw on?
Or . . .
Do we not make eye contact because we discovered early on that the eye region doesn’t hold any useful data for us and our limited data gathering abilities are better “spent” on areas like (in my case) the mouth or voice?
It sounds like a classic “chicken and egg” scenario, doesn’t it?
Add to that level of discomfort that many aspies feel when it comes to making eye contact and it’s easy to see why learning to use and read the eyes in social interaction can feel like such an overwhelming prospect.
Is Making Eye Contact Multi-Tasking?
More than once I’ve read the suggestion that autistic people don’t make eye contact because we have trouble doing two things at the same time. This strikes me as ridiculous. Is making eye contact and talking really the equivalent of doing two things at once? If that’s the case, what about walking and talking? Running and talking? Driving and talking? I can do all of these things with no trouble. Sometimes I even talk while walking and chewing gum. How’s that for multitasking?
Moving on . . .
When Eye Contact Becomes Too Much
The level of discomfort that people on the spectrum experience when it comes to eye contact varies from mild to unbearable. The discomfort also varies from situation to situation. I’m more comfortable making eye contact with people I know very well or hardly at all. People who I know somewhat (professors, fellow students, business acquaintances) are the ones who make me most uncomfortable when it comes to eye contact.
The discomfort goes beyond simply feeling weird. It’s a physical sensation. I physically feel like I can’t continue to look into the person’s eyes a second longer. If I do sustain eye contact beyond that point, I get a strong sensation of needing to flee the room.
The classic “fight or flight” symptoms suggest that my brain is perceiving sustained eye contact with certain people as a threat. Why is this? And why does it happen most strongly with people who I consider acquaintances but not strangers or intimates?
Perhaps it’s because I’m self-conscious about the uneven balance of social power in these situations? The other person is clearly gathering social data from my eyes but I’m not able to do the same. Ironically, given my small range of often inappropriate expressions, what they’re gathering is probably as useless as the fragments of nonverbal communication that I’m picking up from them.
Eye contact with strangers tends to be fleeting and meaningless. The exchange of information feels limited and safe. Eye contact with my husband or daughter, on the other hand, carries none of the social balance of power issues that I feel with acquaintances. I don’t need to worry about what they might be discovering about me or whether I’m missing some key nonverbal cue (because if I am, they’ll tell me).
Acquaintances, however, are still (or sometimes perpetually) in the “getting to know you” stage. We’re feeling each other out, gathering data that will determine the course of future interactions and cement our perceptions of each other.
For NTs, eye contact is a rich and layered language. It’s the conversation within the conversation. As aspies, we’re largely deaf to this language. It’s no wonder it makes us so uncomfortable when others try to “speak” to us with their eyes.