I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.
“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.
I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.
“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”
She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.
“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”
I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!
“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!
She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!
I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.
I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.
I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.
I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”
My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!
So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.
This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.
This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.
So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?
I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.
And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.
And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.
And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.
And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.
Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.
I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!