Autism and Eye Direction

I see countless articles on how to detect a liar saying that if they’re avoiding eye contact or looking away from you, they must be lying.

I see autistic people on social media who feel like Cassandras, being called “dishonest” or “manipulative” or “untrustworthy” no matter how hard they try to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

These are connected. Of course they are.

So maybe you want to be effective at catching liars. Or maybe you love an autistic person and want to understand them better. Or maybe you’re just bored and in need of something to read. (Hey, that’s cool too!)

So let’s talk about what eye direction can mean in autistic people!

I am neurologically programmed to avoid eye contact.

I got to volunteer at a super cool tech lab where we used eye-tracking and other technologies to see how people responded to stuff they saw on screens. During the training, I got to put on the headset and watch videos while my fellow volunteers monitored the data collection.

And I got to watch playback of my brainwaves and eye direction on the screen afterwards. I noticed 2 main things:

  1. When I see a cute dog onscreen, my eyes make a beeline for it and my neural activity spikes.
  2. I unconsciously look at people’s mouths instead of eyes. (I hadn’t been thinking about my eye direction as I watching.)

The screen showed lines and dots where people’s eyes were going. My neurotypical peers looked at the eyes of people on the screen, attempting to make eye contact with people who did not even know they exist. (Weird, right? Maybe they have impaired theory of mind lol.) Whereas I mainly looked at mouths.

A drawing marking up a sketch of a person, showing expected gaze paths. Neurotypicals usually look at the eyes first and I look at the mouth first.
A drawing I made showing where people tend to look right away. Neurotypicals go right for the eyes. Whereas I looked at people’s mouths. I kind of knew this already, but it was a bit bizarre seeing it confirmed on a screen.

So yeah, I’m not going to stare at your eyes because that is how my instincts are wired.

A drawing of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings when he is a giant terrifying eye staring at you. The caption says "How eye contact can feel for autistics"
Look me in the eye! Stop running away!

Researchers have also noted differences in how autistics vs. non-autistics scan faces. (Though many of these studies didn’t control for alexithymia, which may be a confounding factor.)

As an autistic person, I have perception differences, and this includes my level of interest at staring at your creepy eyes.

Eye contact is freaking scary. And that’s not just my personal opinion, but the findings of researchers who have studied autistic people. Most (though not all) autistics really don’t like eye contact.

Imagine a giant flaming eye that stares down at you, making strange movements and emanating a frightening aura that makes you question whether you will live to see tomorrow.

Just how much would you like to have a conversation with that going on?

So I bet it’s no surprise why I don’t look much at people’s eyes. In fact, if you try to force eye contact with me, you may suddenly find that I’m a lot quieter, unfocused, and terrified-looking.

The tl;dr here is that it’s usually a good thing if an autistic person isn’t making eye contact!

Eye direction and intent

I’ve noticed that for neurotypicals, eye direction is usually closely correlated with what they are thinking about:

  • Someone who looks at you while you talk is probably listening to you.
  • Someone who looks at a clock is probably trying to avoid being late.
  • Someone who looks at a door is probably thinking about leaving.

This has even resulted in theory of mind “tests” asking kids what a person in a picture wants, with the “correct” answer being that he wants the piece of candy he is looking at.

But that’s silly to me, because what I’m looking at doesn’t always equal what I’m thinking about.

For example, sometimes I stare at walls. This could be because…

  • I’m listening intently. What my ears hear is very important to me. My eyes are not doing anything important, so they stare into space at a boring direction.
  • I’m overwhelmed by everything going on. The wall doesn’t have much going on. I’ll look at the wall until I’m less overwhelmed or I make my exit.
  • I’m bored and the wall has cool patterns.
  • I’m daydreaming and the wall is as good a place to stare as any.

There are plenty of reasons I could be looking at something. It’s possible that the thing I’m looking at is actually the thing I’m most interested in, but there are lots of other explanations too. Correlation, not causation, and all that.

What you can take away

Pin it and brag about your superior knowledge

So, my dear non-autistic readers who want to be socially savvy, what new facts can you now know?

  • Many autistic people avoid eye contact. This is not because we’re dishonest, but because eye contact often freaks us out.
  • Most non-autistics look at the stuff they’re thinking about. But that rule doesn’t necessarily apply to autistics.
  • Avoid making snap judgments about what someone’s intentions are, especially if that person’s brain works differently than yours.

Can’t figure out why someone is looking at whatever they’re looking at? Here’s a super cool social hack: you can ask them!

(Don’t be scared, shy people! It’s okay!)

I wouldn’t be bothered if someone said “I noticed you’ve been avoiding eye contact. May I ask why?” In fact, I’d rather have them ask than have them assume it’s because I’m dishonest or bored or secretly hating them or whatever.

I look where I look. It’s different from how most non-autistics direct their eyes. And that’s OK.

I hope this helped people better understand. And feel free to share your personal quirks with regards to eye direction in the comments.

And to my non-autistic readers? You now know things that so-called “lying experts” don’t. Feel free to go lord it over them.

2 thoughts on “Autism and Eye Direction

  1. Like you, I’ve probably always known that my eyes tend to direct towards a person’s mouth rather than their eyes. I never considered why my vision tend to fixate on boring sights when I’m listening to someone talk, but I suppose my reception of the excitement of a conversation causes me to focus on less visually stimulating subjects. In fact, like most others on the spectrum, when I’m focusing so much on making unwavering eye contact (which I can do), I’m usually not paying very much attention to what is being said!

    I find that a lot of autistic YouTubers tend to treat their camera lens as a pair of eyes, and as such, slightly look away from it, especially if they’re improvising what they’re saying instead of following a script. I think the anxiety of realizing that the little box in front of you is actually recording everything you say is just too much to handle in the moment, especially when already focusing on vocal modulation (which I know can be a struggle), breath control, and sometimes even posture is just too big of a realization to constantly have in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that managing sensory stimulation is very important and healthy. I’ve even stopped masking around my family and I’ll stare into space while listening so I can hear better.

      That’s interesting! I have avoided looking at the camera (the few times I’ve been recorded for school projects) because my instincts tell me it would be rude to make eye contact through the screen and thus make someone uncomfortable.

      Like

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