January 6, 2019

Many autistics find eye contact painful. I usually don’t. It’s the multitasking that gets to me.

I can only do two of these things at once: Look, listen, plan.

If I look and listen but don’t plan, then I’ll hear what you’re saying, but won’t have a response ready when you stop talking.

If I listen and plan but don’t look, then I can carry on a normal conversation, but may appear distracted.

If I plan and look but don’t listen… well, that would be rude. I pause my planning or looking to make sure I can listen.

Then, when it’s my turn to talk, I can pick any two: Look, speak, plan.

If I look and speak but don’t plan, then I can only get out the words I’ve already planned. To plan more, I have to look away.

If I speak and plan but don’t look, I can be quite eloquent, but I may miss your unspoken reactions.

If I plan and look but don’t speak, it feels like an inefficient pause in the conversation. I prefer to glance away so I can gather my next words more quickly.

I’ve heard many autistics say, “I can look at you or listen to you, but not both.” They say this to prove that it’s unhelpful to force eye contact.

For me, it’s more complex than that. Autistic capabilities often are! I’ve described mine to show that even if some of us can look and listen at the same time, it still takes effort to hold a conversation.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.