Jake is sick. With a fever. He is whiny, sad, tired, and sick. Of course, he wants his Mom. I am spending more time than usual snuggling, calming, soothing, holding, whispering, and reassuring. And for once, I am appreciating it more. We are getting closer than we usually do, he and I. I am being more patient, and he is asking for me more.
This afternoon he asked me to lie on the couch with him and snuggle in close. Our faces were so close. I counted his new freckles. I stroked his unruly hair. I whispered to him that I love him. And I looked into his eyes.
He has the most amazing eyes. They are brownish greenish with flecks of gold that seem like they are constantly rippling like a pebble in a lake. I gazed into them and was lost, lost in love and emotion. Truly, I could see how deeply he loves me, how intensely he needs me.
What makes a moment like this so special is its rarity. Jake’s autism results in eye contact being difficult for him. He actually looks into my eyes quite often, but only for brief glances. He looks into his Dad’s eyes, and into a few special extended family members’, but that is about it. At school, lack of eye contact is something I hear about a lot.
This isn’t usual. The Indiana Resource Centre for Autism describes how feeling comfortable and confident in a situation increases many individuals with autism’s ability to make eye contact. In situations where there are too many stimuli or there is anxiety, it is much harder to make eye contact. I have also heard that the connection between people when they make eye contact is too intimate for many people with autism. It feels uncomfortable, like being naked or exposed. In a moment like the one I had with Jake, it certainly felt intimate to me. We were connected and I felt deeply in love with my baby.
There is a big push to teach autistic people to make eye contact. This is because our eyes convey so much of our social language. People communicate with their eyes, and if you are missing that, you are missing out on a large part of a conversation. There is also the idea that we give eye contact to people when we are listening or paying attention to them. Therefore at school, teachers look out to make sure the students are looking back when instructing. It is this eye contact that lets the teacher know that the students are paying attention and learning the lesson. This is where the phrase, “Look at me,” is heard the most. Parents and caregivers also do this a lot. I know we do it here. It’s the root of the “whole body listening” concept. If you are listening and paying attention, you are turned to face the speaker, you are not distracted by other things, and you are looking at them.
However, the question is, is making eye contact necessary for paying attention?
What if it is too intense?
What if it simply doesn’t work for a person?
A number of “higher functioning” folks who have autism have described difficulties with making eye contact. One of the more humorous explanations was shared over lunch with a brilliant, well- educated, 45-year-old man who has Asperger’s Syndrome. With a mixture of cynicism, good humor and pleading for understanding, he discussed his difficulty with making eye contact, but even more to the point, with expectations that he “read” and respond to the subtle socioemotional messages conveyed via the eyes. In summarizing his message, he said, “If you insist that I make eye contact with you, when I’m finished I’ll be able to tell you how many millimeters your pupils changed while I looked into your eyes.
I love this story. It is absolutely what I imagine Jake goes through. I am coming around to the idea that I do not actually want to pressure Jake to make eye contact if it is uncomfortable, too intimate, and does not actually accomplish any additional communication with him. The Daily Beast wrote:
To a neurodiversity proponent, autism is a social problem. That is not to say that autism is fundamentally a problem with social skills; rather, it is a problem with society’s lack of tolerance for the range of thought patterns and behaviors that characterizes autism. A neurodiversity advocate might say, for example, that autistic people should not be forced to learn how to bring themselves to make eye contact… The rest of us could learn to understand that lack of eye contact is not necessarily rude or weird but is part of the range of acceptable behavior. More than that: We could value the unique insights the autistic mind has to offer.
Wow. This is where I am coming to. I want to find an alternate route to communicate with Jake, for those times when he can’t look into my eyes, or into his teachers. There needs to be another way for him to show that he is listening, perhaps by turning his body, or offering a simple “Got it.”
As well, I want to help create a world where eye contact is appreciated, and yet, not required for social interaction. I want Jake to be able to have friendships with his peers and work with his teachers and have them understand that he just can’t offer that all the time. I think this is so important, and so easily done. I would hate to have people demand that I feel exposed all the time. All it takes is some education and understanding.