Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The benefits of low eye contact

Like most people on the Autism spectrum making eye contact with people is not an instinctual thing for me. In fact it makes me uncomfortable and is distracting. But I have learned how to do it and I can usually even do it while sparing half a mind to pay attention to something else as well. But is it always worth it to put in that effort?
photo by Michele Laterza
Some time ago I was experimenting with wearing sunglasses to what effect taking eyecontact out of the equation would have on causal interactions like dealing with the checkout clerk. One of the first things I noticed was that more people were getting in my way at the grocery store. Or to be more accurate not getting out of my way. On subsequent observation and reflection it seems that a woman walking towards on a collision path and looking at you without meeting your eyes triggers some sort of social response and leads to alteration of of path to avoid collision.
Just to be clear, I don't think I started out making the assumption that other people would be the ones to change their path. But because of my trouble correctly perceiving and interpreting motion I take a second or two longer than most people to change my path. The fact that people were preemptively moving out of my way probably increased my subconscious belief that vectors were likely to change so that I needed to give things time to settle down.
Lack of eye contact also does cut down on surprise occurrences of chit-chat. Since I find chit-chat almost uniformly stressful the decrease in its incidence does sometimes seem like an OK trade off for unintentionally appearing less friendly. Overall I do think meeting people's eyes is a very good skill to have so you can use When you WANT to. But our goal shouldn't be to use eye contact just like neurotypicals. The goal is to communicate in a way that can be. Understood, not to put on a mask and pretend to be normal.

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