Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Politics of Eyegaze

One of the stereotypical autism traits has to do with eye contact. There's this common perception that lack of eye contact is the most obvious sign that someone has autism. And, that's just not true. Not entirely. It is true that many people with autism avoid eye contact. It's also true that some people with autism go overboard with the eye contact. Like everything else about the spectrum, it's not an either/or thing. There are extremes, and there are gradations.

For some, it is painful to look someone else in the eye. For others, it's just not a very meaningful source of information. And for others, there's this received idea that it's important:  TV shows and movies and parents and teachers tell us this and we try, but we can't quite figure it out.

I think eyes are pretty. And I like looking at them for a bit. But, my own gaze can wander. I wear glasses, so it might not be as noticeable to the people I'm talking to. I've got camouflage. But I look at eyebrows, and mouths, and teeth. The nose. I keep returning to the eyes, because I know that's what you're supposed to do. But do I get the message? If it's a directional thing, like, eyes are pointed at said object, I've learned to follow that (although it was really hard when I was younger). If it's an acknowledgement, as in, I know that driver sees me in the crosswalk because I can see their eyes, I can do that. But the clues to feelings?

I've studied this. I've read a lot of comics, and drawn some comics. Expressively, I have an idea of an exaggerated state of eye-based emotional communication. And I think I've learned to emulate this overly expressive style. It garners laughter from small children. And it's usually very intentional. When I'm not trying, or when things are serious, I tend to have a flat aspect. My eyes don't show my feelings. This probably saved me from getting bullied. Random aggressors didn't get the fear reaction they expected and they moved on to someone else who would give it to them.

When I was getting my diagnosis, one of the testing instruments was a set of photographs of eyes. Each picture of eyes has a set of four adjectives and I was supposed to pick the right one. I don't have a lot of confidence in my results on this test. I ended up scoring on the low end of normal, but it was really hard. As a former teacher, I was quite familiar with the test prep strategies for boosting scores on multiple choice tests. I took my time and I used those strategies to improve my guesses on a lot of them. The more exaggerated expressions were the ones that were easier to figure out. But there were no mouths to look at. No frowns or smiles. Just eyes.

I tend to look for meaning in everything. I know there's meaning and I look for it really hard. I look for it in architectural details, in the weather, in patterns of information I see on Internet newsfeeds, and I look for it in other people's eyes. I know there's a signal there, but sometimes I'm blind to the one that's really obvious to most everyone and I keep looking for a meaning that I can read.

When I look at eyes, I look with an intensity that hopes to cut everything else away and peer straight into the core of who I'm looking at. I want my gaze to burrow in and find their secret code. And then I worry that I'm being too intense, shift my eyes to something else, and back, to cool it down somehow. How must it feel for someone to have me look at them like that? I don't know. And if they smile, what does that mean? What do they know that I don't. What if they're just being polite to a passerby, or what if they want me to talk to them? And why can't I find the words to ask them? And maybe that's it. I'm looking for words in their eyes. Words about who they are inside their eyes. It's ridiculous, when put so simply, but Western culture behaves as though this were a true thing: "the eyes are the windows to the soul."

Eye contact is so important in our culture, and it is supposed to mean something. It indicates something about confidence and self-worth. And somehow we believe it's impossible to look someone in the eye and lie to them, but that's not true. In other cultures, direct eyegaze is an act of aggression. In other cultures children are taught not to look directly into an elder's eyes.

Lack of eye contact is not a true sign of autism. It's just a sign of someone who doesn't buy into the cultural significance of eye contact. Look for other signs.

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