It’s physical as well as emotional. The reflex to pull away from the someone else’s gaze can be as visceral as cystitis, a pain that’s hard to locate, sitting as it does at various sites around your body.
Passing colleagues in the hall, faking sincerity after receiving a gift, looking into the eyes of someone you no longer love, or telling a friend a truth they don’t want to hear: looking away is easier.
Gazing is intense, and for lovers and mothers. Pupils dilate. We all betray ourselves with the windows to our soul. Seeing your reflection in someone’s eye can be beautiful, or horrific, depending on your feelings about the other person.
It is thought that eye contact, known for generating trust and bonding, is dropping with our increased access to technology and shortened attention spans. We all know the sense of deflation we feel when someone with whom we’re talking drops their gaze to their iPhone. Our attention is often pulled, but it’s worth remembering the impact of cutting someone off when a message comes in. It’s a tiny rejection, but it’s a rejection nonetheless.
For aspies, one of the first tell tale signs in children is lack of eye contact, and as they grow up, making eye contact can feel overwhelming, interrupt their level of concentration or feel physically uncomfortable.
It’s not entirely clear why aspies struggle with eye contact more than the average person. Theories abound about social awkwardness, misinterpretation of emotion and of conflicting neural pathways I can’t make head nor tale of. Eye to eye discomfort is common enough for the rest of us too, although giving death stares and defiant glances can be empowering and intimidating if you’re brave enough to try it. But why does it intimidate? It can be powerful as a punch, but it’s only a look.
It is often said that parents telling teenage boys to ‘look at me while I’m talking to you’ are being entirely counter productive. Forcing young men, or anyone for that matter, to focus on your face means they can’t focus on what you’re saying, and talking in the car, where you’re side by side, rather than face to face, is often the best way to get your teen to open up.
When Jonah was younger, and I was really pissed off with him about something, to the point I shouted, he would appear to short circuit (not a proud mama moment). His eyes would begin to flicker, like he couldn’t talk on board the extent of my rage. It was an effective way of defusing the situation, however, as I would be so freaked out by his facial flickering that I would inevitability stop shouting and start feeling guilty instead.
But although he was always described as a ‘serious’ baby, Jonah, aged 7 and still in his Oedipal stage, by the nightly cuddles he insists upon, can look me in the eye like a lover as he whispers sweet nothing to me, even though he often fails to give a second glance as I drop him off at school.
For more resources on Aspergers and eye contact, this blog has a great, real life perspective. http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/aspergers-and-eye-contact.html
Further to my original article, I found this interesting study about eye gaze research on toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Worth a read