IMAGINE THE SCENE….
You’re in a noisy cafeteria, there’s construction going on in the hall outside and the lights are flickering like mad. Across the table, your best friend is about to share the most important secret she has…and she’s whispering it so only you can hear. You strain to listen – but amidst the chaos, you miss a few words. And, when you ask her to repeat herself, she accuses you of being distant, aloof, and uncaring. Would that be fair? Of course not.
It’s Too Loud (I Can’t See): Turning Down the Sensory “VOLUME”
Forcing eye contact is very much akin to the way in which left-handed children used to be made to use their right hands. If the goal is for us to listen, think about and engage with new information, we have to allow be allowed to look elsewhere if need be (NOT including a screen – use a fidget instead).
The demand for sustained eye contact has more to do with making the speaker feel heard; it shows no understanding of the experience of the Aspie himself. Because….we’re not being rude! We are truly trying to listen AND to communicate —
You might just say that eye contact can make sensory “noise” get too intense. In that case, we can’t reflect back what you’re saying or, sometimes, even arrange our own thoughts well. Instead, we need to tune the “volume” on one sense “down” in order to give another sense more focus. And that’s why we ditch (or alter) our eye contact….in various ways.
Some people avoid eye contact altogether (a really uninformed on-or-off-the-spectrum “gold-standard”), while others repeatedly look back and forth between the other person and a fixed object (like a painting), or strategically gaze off just before speaking or replying (that’s my go-to). To you, it appears that we’re considering our answers. The “ulterior” motive is all but invisible. On the plus side, many people don’t realize we’re even doing it; on the negative side, many people don’t realize we’re even doing it. Meaning they underestimate the effort we ALL have to put in when it’s “too loud” to see.
(BTW – Need help making sense of this sensory business? Gotcha covered right here.)
On The Other Hand…..
Friends, dates, parents, teachers…bosses…just like those of us on the spectrum, need to know they’re being heard and respected. Trouble is, a lot of us don’t realize how much we’re missing AND communicating through our “listening stance.” No worries, a little explaining can go a long way (funny, that’s true for everybody, isn’t it?). So here’s how I explain things :
In general, NT’s show interest by making and maintaining eye contact with the other person. For a lot of us, though, eye contact is really uncomfortable; we end up thinking more about trying to look at the person than what’s being said.
Being a good, active listener takes thought, preparation, and lots and lots of practice. It involves your body first and words last. And while it sounds strange at first, it really is simple logic. By encouraging others to talk about themselves, you make people feel important. And when you make them feel important, they want to be around you more.
–The Asperkids (Secret) Book of Social Rules, Book of the Year
Don’t be daunted. Good news. There really are ways to make everyone happy —
Here’s one of my favorite tips: The Secret Fooled-You Spot
When meeting or talking with someone, just look at the spot on the bridge of the nose – right between the eyes…(see the purple star sticker?)It feels as though there’s eye contact while allowing the Asperkid (or adult!) to keep the sensory “volume” doable. Seriously, people. This works. Give it a spin.
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Last but not least — I have to ask you, on behalf of all of us who truly ARE trying to listen. Please make us a promise. Please….
Don’t ever allow adults to force or demand eye contact. Don’t let it be included in IEP’s. And no face-grabbing, either. For each of us, our body is OUR body, and shouldn’t be manipulated by others. Instead, try to understand WHY we do what we do, insist on the same from others, and teach us why you do what you do. There’s lots of middle ground to be had.
Because, in the end, we ALL deserve to be heard.