Look At Me: Autism and Eye Contact

“Look at me…LOOK AT ME!”

My supervisor has a way of getting people’s attention. He could be wondering why or if my right eye has taken five minutes to itself. As you guess, I have trouble with eye contact

‘I’m looking at you, idiot.’ I thought to myself wishing I could say that out loud.

Like every other neurotype, I took in the rebuke for my mistake of not wiping cars the way my supervisor wants. It’s not that I hate my job. The noise doesn’t bother me even as I focus and the smells of cleaning chemicals are manageable. If these two accommodations are properly controlled, I can last one more day on the job. Too bad having a lazy right eye doesn’t help.

Unfortunately looking at my supervisor, with my dominant eye, may trigger sensory overload. My eyes are straining as I looked into his. Looking into the window of a room that was my supervisor’s conclusion of my mistakes was giving me a headache. It felt like the room was a harsh fuchsia changing to milky green and back again every two seconds.

It’s not that my supervisor was irate. I know he means well. I can’t find the words to explain to him that long moments of eye contact cause me to feel mentally sick. If I knew what I would say, I’d explain that pro-longed eye contact causes me mental vertigo. Or I’d mention that my brain has facial recognition crashes when eye contact lasts more than 10 seconds. But alas, he wouldn’t understand when I turn away. All he knows is that when I turn away, to him it means social indifference, insensitivity, or lack of concern. Yet, I’m listening. I can focus on what he wants me to hear. I can feel every stabbing word like shurikens grazing my ears. I understand how to do my job better, and I always have. Like I said, I made a mistake. My supervisor made it a bigger deal by assuming I’m a cold factory-line worker who wants to open up his own bakery.

The difficulty that comes with eye contact is a result of the brain’s subcortical system, which handles natural focus on faces. It’s like a human mental facial recognition program. This system assists the brain with emotional perceptions. The system is activated by eye contact. For those without autism or neurotypes, subcortical activation is achieved. As a result, eye contact results in connection. For those with Aspergers or autism, overactivation in the brain occurs. When they concentrate on the eye region, sensory overload or meltdowns overtake them. This also happens with certain facial expressions such as those fear and anger. According to Harvard professor Nouchine Hadjikhani, forcing anyone with autism or Aspergers to look into someone’s eyes has the potential to create a lot of anxiety for them. Encouraging people with autism to slowly get used to eye contact can help them avoid sensory overload or meltdowns.

The story ends with me informing my supervisor I need a bathroom break. Finally, he lets me go and I sit on the toilet until I can calm down and stop shaking. If only autism and Aspergers was as mainstream back then as it is now. If only this study was found earlier in my life. I’d have a longer career at the car wash enjoying the repetition that helps keep me focused and working well. But I need to pay the bills. That involves eye contact without the repetitive tasks.

Credit: Harvard professor Nouchine Hadjikhani: http://www.philly.com/philly/health/study-overstimulation-not-indifference-makes-eye-contact-hard-for-people-with-autism-20170702.html