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A Recent Experiment with Eye Contact

Posted May 06 2010 12:00am
As discussed a few posts back, I've been doing a lot of cub scout leader training recently. It's been very interesting because it has taught me a lot about myself. In this post I want to discuss a recent experiment with eye contact.

Overcoming the Eye Contact Behavioural Issues
I don't have a particular problem with eye contact compared to my aspie peers. This is because most people assume that I am giving good eye contact and don't hassle me about it. In truth, although I don't give good eye contact, I give great "lip contact", though probably not the kind you're thinking of.

Being deaf has taught me to stare at people's lips when they talk as an aid to lip-reading. Since most people simply assume that I'm looking at their eyes when they're talking I haven't been subject to the constant corrections that other aspies have to suffer.

Of course, it has its downsides too. Every now and then, someone will realise that I'm not looking directly into their eyes but am looking a little bit lower. Females particularly tend to become unnerved by this and will slap a hand to the top of their clothing (as if they're worried that I'm talking to their breasts).

When that happens, It's embarrassing for me and for them. Even worse, their sudden hand movements distract me so that I do end up looking there. If they could just wear sensible clothing we could concentrate on the exchange of information rather than "wardrobe malfunctions". At work, I'm always wearing a tie, so it isn't an issue for me (not that I have anything to look at anyway).

The "Test" from the Inside
Being a part-physical and part academic course, scout leadership includes a lot of bonding, team-building and psychological exercises. I groaned inwardly when we were told to select a partner for an eye-contact exercise. We had the option to refuse but I'm always keen to experiment and learn new things about myself. This seemed to be a good opportunity.

I can't remember the last time I deliberately tried to look someone in the eye but I suspect that it was when I was a child.

We stood opposite our partners and when told to start began starring into each other's eyes. I immediately felt nauseated. It was like a howling wind was screaming in my mind and I felt like I was being peeled away layer by layer. I ended up having to look away several times and although I felt calmer when I did, I still felt extremely uncomfortable knowing that those eyes were waiting for me to look back.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, our leader told us to stop. I broke contact immediately and was surprised to find her standing right next to me.

The "Test" from the Outside
Our leadder talked generally about how our body language changed during the experiment and she mentioned mine in particular. She said that she'd sensed something was wrong with me and had moved over to me because she was worried that I might collapse. She said that I had jolted backwards and was doing things with my hands. Fisting and spreading my fingers, obviously a stim which I'd subconsciously started.

I told her that I had aspergers (I hadn't written it on the forms, so nobody knew) and I was surprised to find that I had trouble getting the words out. I was a bit out of breath. I think I'd been supressing my breathing during the experiment. Worse though, my heart was still racing and I was shaking like a leaf. It didn't seem to be getting any better.

Fortunately, our leader announced lunch immediately and I think I almost bowled people over in my haste to get out of the room. I ran down to the lunch room, quickly grabbed a plate and sat at an empty table as far away from the occupied tables as I could. It took my colleagues quite a while to fill up the tables around me and I was just beginning to stop shaking when the seats around me started to fill. There were a few people around me who obviously wanted to talk but somehow, I'm not quite sure how, I must have been giving off strange vibes because they stayed fairly silent for a few minutes longer.

Eventually I calmed down enough to be able to speak.

Things to take note of
It was an interesting test but it's not one that I'm inclined to repeat. I wasn't expecting the intensity of my own reaction and I wasn't expecting that full-fledged eye contact would be so painful. That's what happens when you go about your daily business for years not having to do it.

I'm one of the most well adjusted aspies around (IMHO). I like to think that Aspergers doesn't impact me as much as my colleagues. It's probably true but it's still scary to think that eye contact can so quickly reduce me from a competent business person to a gibbering wreak.

The most important point that I want to make here is... before you start encouraging (or forcing) your child to make eye contact, spare a thought for what it might be doing to them. Try asking them to look at mouths or chins instead.
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