When someone does not make eye contact with you, you’ll likely make some unhelpful and harmful assumptions. For starters, you might think they’re not interested in what you have to say or, at the very least, distracted. On another level, limiting eye contact might signal a lack of empathy to you. In fact, many neurotypical and allistic people may view a lack of eye contact as rude. This limited perspective can shatter any chance of a connection between people and even cause harm.
You should know that the person diverting their eyes might be autistic. They might be struggling with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It could be a combination of both needs. At Spectrum Connections Therapy, I work to promote neurodiversity-affirming and trauma-informed care, therefore I feel it is a harmful practice to force neurodivergent individuals to engage in eye contact if they are more comfortable looking away. So, before jumping to conclusions, that an individual is being rude or disrespectful, it can be helpful to learn more in support of being more accepting and affirming.
Eye Contact and Autism
There is no blood test or body scan used to diagnose autism. A medical practitioner or neuropsychologist trained in specialized assessments must rely on observation and testing results — looking for a spectrum of behaviors that meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism. Lack of eye contact is high on that list. This is not to say that everyone avoiding eye contact is autistic. Rather, it’s just an acknowledgment that may be a common sign of Autism Spectrum (ASD).
Studies have found that different parts of the brain are activated by eye contact in people with autism and those without it. For example, a child with Autism Spectrum may have a stronger neurological response to a direct gaze. This is believed to be the case because children with autism are:
- Often overwhelmed, in a sensory way, by direct eye contact
- Eye contact can feel unpleasant, uncomfortable, and distracting for them
- There can be little to zero social motivation to make eye contact
- They are unable to simultaneously follow both verbal language and a person’s eyes
Of course, other issues can be at play. The autistic child may be anxious or dislike the person who is talking. Also, in certain cultures, eye contact is frequently discouraged.
Adults, Autism, and Eye Contact
Autistic adults are often able to express their feelings about eye contact more clearly. Research suggests that adults also find it challenging to process verbal and visual cues at the same time. Some other reasons they eschew eye contact include:
- Eye contact is reserved for a select few trusted connections; anything else feels confusing or even invasive.
- Uncertainty about how much eye contact is considered appropriate in society.
- Making eye contact causes physical symptoms like headaches, palpitations, nausea, dizziness, and more.
As a result, adults with Autism Spectrum may “fake” eye contact by aiming their gaze just below or above the other person’s eyes. This is a form of masking and can be deeply unpleasant for the autistic individual as well as lead to fatigue, burnout, sensory overload, and meltdowns.
Eye Contact and ADHD
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is another neurodivergent condition that impacts one’s ability and/or willingness to engage in prolonged eye contact. ADHD causes many forms of discomfort, and, in its most basic way, avoiding eye contact is used to prevent others from recognizing that discomfort.
Even if they are not fully conscious of the tactic, children will often “hide” their eyes. As tempting as it is to encourage them to make eye contact, there are valuable reasons not to make this a requirement, e.g.:
- They feel self-conscious about maintaining eye contact when having sensitive, meaningful conversations — especially with anyone other than their inner circle.
- Our eyes are very complex, and all the details they present can be overwhelming.
- Similar to kids with ASD, eye contact can result in sensory overload.
Of course, as with Autism Spectrum, these are generalities. Everyone with neurodivergence is different and has unique needs. Learning how to support your loved ones or yourself in meaningful social interactions that feel comfortable is imperative to learning to de-mask, and live more authentically.
However, as you can see, topics like this are far from black-and-white due to everyone on the neurodiversity spectrum having their own needs and presentations of their neurodivergence. Finding a therapist who will affirm your identity, celebrate your strengths and help you live more authentically and intentionally will be important. If your therapist is uninformed about neurodiversity or promotes teaching eye contact as a therapy goal, I firmly believe this is a harmful practice. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum (ASD) and/or ADHD, you deserve specialized attention for how the diverse spectrum specifically impacts you and a therapist who creates a safe, trauma-informed space to celebrate your strengths. If you are curious to know more about how I can be of support, I invite you to reach out for your free 20-minute phone consultation so we can connect. I look forward to hearing from you soon.