When I talk to people I look at them, most humans do this. Not an intense stare, but frequent glances. It’s a way of checking in. Have they understood me? Have I understood them? Do they want to carry on talking to me? Deaf people struggle if they try and communicate with people wearing sun glasses…..eyes communicate, but they need to see and be seen. Or at least they do if you are neurotypical (not autistic).
When Edward was a baby sometimes he looked at me but often he didn’t. He didn’t really look at people outside the immediate family until he was around 5 years old. Close friends, even those seen frequently, were often blanked. I can remember being in front of Edward trying to get his attention and he would be looking straight through me, his eyes focusing on who knows what about 2m behind me. Sometimes he even had quite a chuckle to himself whilst staring into mid space. To this day I do not know what was amusing him at these times.
When Edward was about 10 I found myself doing a little experiment during a conversation with him. I stopped looking at his eyes and instead focused on his left ear lobe. This was really strange and it made me feel oddly uncomfortable. Try it for yourself.. find a good friend and without mentioning anything just start looking at their ear lobe rather than their eyes. If they are neurotypical they will assume you are too polite to tell them they have something gross stuck on their ear or that you love their earrings. After about 2 minutes of talking to Edwards ear lobe I could stand it no longer and asked him,
“have you noticed that I have done anything strange in the last two minutes?”
“well I have been looking at your ear lobe instead of at your eyes when I have been speaking to you, didn’t you notice?”
“no…I couldn’t tell. Do it again, both ways and see if I can tell the difference”
It turned out that Edward, even when trying really hard to detect whether I was looking at his eyes or his ear lobe, simply couldn’t pick up on the difference. We were both surprised.
Edward doesn’t use eye communication like I do…. he understands words, not glances, sly looks or hard stares.
This can be a problem in schools, teachers expect pupils to look at them. Especially so when they are telling them off. They expect a hard stare will silence a chatty pupil.. it won’t if the pupil is autistic.
In year 4 Edward had a rubbish year at school. A great part of this was due to the fact that his class teacher just didn’t get autism. One day Edward had managed to get into an argument with his teacher and this argument was still rumbling along at home time. It ended up with the teacher, Edward and I in the play ground having a conversation. I think the teacher didn’t feel that Edward was listening to her and she said, “Edward look at me when I am talking to you”. (I thought.. oh this is going to get interesting). Edward obeyed. From that point on he did look at the teacher. He gave 100% in this task. Full marks for effort. He didn’t blink. He kept his eyes wide open, practically bulging with effort as he stared straight at the teacher.
As we left the playground we had this conversation.
“Did you hear what the teacher was saying to you then?”
“I was too busy looking at her”
Looking at the teacher took all his effort, he had none left for listening.
We don’t tell Edward to look at us, but we have trained him to glance every so often in the vicinity of our faces… for our benefit, not his. He really doesn’t need to look at us ….. it gives him virtually no useful information. He glances in our general direction because he understands that this helps us to know that he is listening.