The eyes have it

Believe it or not, there was a period of time when I used to raise my voice. In other words, I yelled. Often.

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that it happened at all, considering I’m usually very quiet, soft-spoken, and reserved, but I’m not proud to admit that I did raise my voice in an unproductive manner more than I should have.

I became a mother for the first time over sixteen years ago. Most of my verbal outbursts were directed at my first two children when they were toddlers and preschoolers. I was in my late twenties at the time and still several years from being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Me with my two eldest children

I should clarify that, as far as normal behavior goes, my yelling probably wasn’t much different from that of other parents, but it was still more than I had ever yelled before in my life. It simply is not in my nature to yell.

Let’s say you’re at a rock concert, for example, and someone on the stage wants the crowd to give a louder response than before, so they’ll scream into the microphone, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!”, which is the signal for everyone to repeat what they already shouted but louder. Yeah, I can’t do that. Physically, I can’t bring myself to yell like that, especially on command. I might be able to squeak out a timid “Woo!”, but that’s really the most noise I can possibly force out of my vocal chords.

Most of the time my spontaneous yelling occurred when I lost my temper because I had to repeat myself over and over again to my young children. Although autistic people do require some type of repetitive behavior to help calm themselves, having to repeat the things I say has always had the exact opposite effect on me. I get so frustrated and my words usually contain a distinctive hint of annoyance the second time. And if I have to repeat myself a third time – watch out!

It seems like no one can hear me or even acknowledge me. I know I have a quiet voice, but are they even making an effort to listen to me? Can anyone hear me? Am I invisible? It makes me feel like no one even cares what I have to say and doesn’t deem me worthy of the effort.

One of the things that I have since learned about autism is that many on the spectrum have a very difficult time making eye contact with others. Looking someone in the eye makes me extremely uncomfortable. It involves a level of intimacy that I reserve only for a select few. I know that most people find eye contact a necessary social requirement when having a conversation with someone, but I mostly find it painfully excruciating.

Over the years I’ve developed the technique at looking vaguely in another person’s general direction when they speak. As seen through my eyes, I enlarge my field of vision without concentrating on any particular point instead of engaging in the penetrating gaze that direct eye contact requires. This seems to satisfy the other person’s need for eye contact and my aversion to it, although maybe it’s not as effective as I hope.

We’re always told not to stare at someone – except when talking to someone, apparently – so I long ago developed the habit of sneaking glances out of the corner of my eye instead of turning my head to look at something or someone. You might have noticed the picture of me as a young girl at the top of my blog page; the side-eye has been with me for as long as I can remember. You can even see me looking out of the corner of my eyes in the picture of me with my children above. I always thought I was getting away with my furtive glances, but I have had a few people call me out on it. “Why do you do that thing with your eye?” they have asked.

When I first suspected that my son and I had Asperger’s (i.e., autism), I began a quest for books written by authors on the spectrum. I found Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison at our local library, in which Robison describes his experience growing up in the 1960s with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.

Why is eye contact so difficult for those of us on the spectrum? In his memoir, Robison writes:

“Look me in the eye, young man!”I cannot tell you how many times I heard that shrill, whining refrain. It started about the time I got to first grade. I heard it from parents, relatives, teachers, principals, and all manner of other people. I heard it so often I began to expect to hear it.

Sometimes it would be punctuated by a jab from a ruler or one of those rubber-tipped pointers teachers used in those days. The teachers would say, “Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” I would squirm and continue to look at the floor, which would just make them madder. I would glance up at their hostile faces and feel squirmier and more uncomfortable and unable to form words, and I would quickly look away.

I didn’t know why they were getting agitated. I didn’t even understand what looking someone in the eye meant. And yet, I felt ashamed, because people expected me to do it, and I knew it, and yet I didn’t. So what was wrong with me?

Everyone thought they understood my behavior. They thought it was simple: I was just no good.I came to believe what they said about me, because so many said the same thing, and the realization that I was defective hurt. I became shyer, more withdrawn.

To this day, when I speak, I find visual input to be distracting. When I was younger, if I saw something interesting, I might begin to watch it and stop speaking entirely. As a grown-up, I don’t usually come to a complete stop, but I may still pause if something catches my eye. That’s why I usually look somewhere neutral – at the ground or off into the distance – when I’m talking to someone. … And now I know it is perfectly natural for me not to look at someone when I talk. Those of us with Asperger’s are just not comfortable doing it. In fact, I don’t really understand why it’s considered normal to stare at someone’s eyeballs.

After reading Robison’s exquisite work, it dawned on me that my failure to make eye contact with others might be the reason why no one can hear me when I speak because they didn’t even realize I was talking to them! Once I started making eye contact when I spoke to my children, they seemed to actually listen to what I was saying. And I discovered that looking into the eyes of someone who is trustworthy and nonjudgmental doesn’t make me as uncomfortable as it has in the past.

However, I can’t say that I’m so comfortable with everyone else that I’m yet able to consistently make eye contact during conversations. Those of us on the spectrum know that we are inherently odd, and the instinctive feeling of being judged by others in social situations never really goes away. Invariably, looking someone in the eye creates a vulnerability that sometimes is just too much to bear. But know that, if I am able to look you in the eye, I am more comfortable with you than the vast majority of people, which I would consider a great compliment!

At any rate, I am now able to make eye contact more than ever before. As a result, I repeat myself a lot less these days, and yell a lot less, too, if ever. I wish I could go back to those early days of parenting and take back the yelling I did then. And I wish I would have had myself figured out long ago, but at least I’m learning more and more about myself as time goes on and working to improve in areas where I am capable.

Understanding things about yourself that aren’t inherently apparent is a necessary key to solving your puzzle. Not only for your own sake, but also for everyone else’s. And, in my case, for the sake of their eyeballs, too.


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