Tell Me Again Why Eye Contact is So Important

On Saturday, I volunteered as a clarinet clinician for Masterworks – a local interscholastic program in which multiple area high school bands join together to play literature that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to play (this year is the all-Holst concert: First Suite, Mars, and Jupiter).  My primary purpose was to lead the two-hour clarinet sectional in the afternoon: conduct, keep the pace moving, give helpful hints on how to clarinet.

I’m also the guard instructor for one of the high schools, and the clarinets I was teaching on Saturday included two of my guard members (who got knowing smiles when I took thirty seconds to rant about how movement is the fundamental fine art).

About an hour and a half into the rehearsal, I was trying to get the third clarinets to sing the end of the second movement of First Suite.  Anyone who knows the second movement of First Suite knows why: the third clarinets have a completely exposed set of eighth notes that *must* come out clearly in order to complete the final phrase of the movement.  And anyone who has taught or played in high school band knows why getting third clarinets to sing is a tall order: the back row of the clarinets is where band kids go when they really *want* to be in band, but really *lack* the slightest confidence in their ability to contribute.

Anyway, the more I encouraged, the quieter they got, until one of my guard members – and the solo first clarinet – turned around and said, “It’s okay.  She’s probably the nicest lady you’re ever going to meet.”

I don’t share this to gloat, even though it was one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten from a student (and, because this student would be the first to tell me if I was being too nice – or too anything – I believe it).  I share it because I got called “the nicest lady you’re ever going to meet” 90 minutes into a rehearsal in which I had not made eye contact with a single person in the room once.

Eye contact in autism is a big freaking deal for some reason.  There are at least two Autism Speaks billboards within three miles of my house that warn “Avoiding eye contact is a sign of autism.”  A 2015 post on the org’s website says that eye contact is important for “communicating interest in having a social interaction with someone,” and that it’s necessary “to pick up and respond to important social cues from other people.”  A similar post by the Autism Treatment Centers of America insists that “Eye contact is vital because it means your child is interacting and connecting with you.”  And while some researchers have figured out that avoiding it has to do with information or sensory processing differences, most sources still refer to the decision whether or not to force eye contact as, at best, a “controversy.”

Since childhood, I’ve been pressured to “normalize” my eye contact – to the point that I have just about perfected a facsimile of non-autistic modulated eye contact, as long as you don’t expect me to actually hear or retain what you are saying.  I’ve been told that unless I could pull off non-autistic eye contact, I would never have friends, I would never get a job, and no one would ever take me seriously.

A few years ago, I quit trying to fake eye contact.  Not because I don’t care about having friends, or getting a job, or being taken seriously, but because the energy required to fake eye contact and function outstripped my abilities.  I can’t fake non-autistic eye contact and think, or process sound inputs (so I literally cannot understand what you are saying), or plan, or predict, or even pay enough attention to my surroundings to avoid injury (as I’ve learned through experience on countless occasions).

What I’ve learned since giving up my attempts to fake eye contact is that it really, really doesn’t matter as much as its proponents insist it does.

I have multiple friends, none of whom care if I fake eye contact.  I met and married the man who is now my husband without faking eye contact.  I’ve succeeded in multiple interviews and landed multiple job offers without making eye contact.  I teach without making eye contact.  And, on Saturday, I got a tired and vaguely annoyed teenager to call me “the nicest lady you’ll ever meet”…without making eye contact.

And yes, the third clarinets sang.  And it was glorious.

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5 thoughts on “Tell Me Again Why Eye Contact is So Important

  1. You know, the funny thing is that for all the talk about “normal” eye contact being natural and fundamental to human communication, it doesn’t even seem to come naturally to all non-autistic people. I know a lot of parents who correct their kids on eye contact as part of “manners.”

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  2. I tend to make (sometimes) fleeting eye contact with people I know very well and when I’m not anxious. It was Deborah Lipsky in her book “From Anxiety to Meltdown” who said that dishonest people tend to make eye contact as a way of manipulating people into trusting them and nullifies the whole point of it. So much for that.

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  3. Hi, yes I’m a bit awkward and lanky and I’m liable to trip over if I look at people while walking. When I’m buying something at a shop counter I’m looking at the money because I’ve walked out with the wrong change, or I’ll just drop the coins, stuff sliding everywhere. If I have time I’ll raise my eyes and look the shopkeeper in the eye after putting ever thing away, with a big friendly smile and thank you. But looking at people’s faces is a trip!

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