05 Feb 2024

Eye contact in adults with autism

Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is defined by several different traits, such as difficulty in social situations, special interests and sensory processing differences. While autism …

Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is defined by several different traits, such as difficulty in social situations, special interests and sensory processing differences. While autism is a lifelong condition, it often goes undiagnosed, with many adults only considering a diagnosis following ASD’s recent spotlight in the media.

Both adults and children with autism are likely to have trouble with eye contact and eye contact avoidance can be one of the first signs of autism. However, in this guide, we’ll focus on eye contact in adults with autism.

Why do autistic people avoid eye contact?

Autistic people can find making and sustaining eye contact extremely uncomfortable. While the reasons why are not fully understood by scientists, research suggests it could be due to sensory and cognitive processing difficulties and social communication challenges.

Sensory and cognitive processing difficulties

Making direct eye contact can be overwhelming for someone with autism due to their heightened sensory sensitivities. It can also present further difficulties in making eye contact by triggering a sensory overload.

For some people with autism, maintaining eye contact can take up a lot of mental energy, distracting from the cognitive processing needed to focus on a conversation. This results in people with autism often avoiding eye contact so that they can focus on what’s being said to them and form a response.

Social communication challenges

Other reasons why people with autism may find it challenging to maintain eye contact with others can be due to their difficulty understanding social norms. Eye contact is a subtle and complex form of social communication.

People with autism often have difficulty interpreting social nuances, which can cause feelings of anxiety. They might choose not to make eye contact to avoid those feelings of anxiousness.

Why do autistic people make intense eye contact?

On the other hand, some people with autism make very intense eye contact. This is often linked to Autism masking or camouflaging.

Literal thinking

People with autism often have trouble interpreting social rules, and as a result, respond to instructions very literally. If someone with autism has been told that it’s polite to make eye contact, they might overcompensate by staring directly into someone’s eyes in a conversation for too long, or too intently to come across as friendly.

Eye contact and masking

Some people with autism might not even realise that they are masking with eye contact until they realise that neurotypical people don’t usually think about eye contact in a conversation.

When masking their eye contact, they might have deliberate coping strategies to try and appear to fit into social norms such as;

  • Looking at the person’s forehead or chin when talking to them
  • Looking directly then looking away to appear to be making “balanced” eye contact
  • Only looking at familiar people in group conversations

How can the Autism Service help?

Not making natural eye contact in a conversation can mean that you come across as disinterested or rude when that’s not the case. This is why opening up the conversation about eye contact and autism is important for understanding and acceptance.

If you have trouble making eye contact as well as other traits associated with autism, it might be worth considering an autism assessment. Find out more about what to expect in your assessment or contact one of our clinics located all over the country for more information.

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