Autism and the Criminal Justice System – Part 6 – Eye Contact

Eye contact is something that autistic people can find very difficult, but it is also something that our society values very highly.  This can often lead to problems and conflict.  This article isn’t designed to give people tips on how to be better at making eye contact, but rather to illustrate why it can be difficult for autistic individuals, and why it can make contact with the police, and the criminal justice system in general, even more stressful and unpleasant.

Some autistic people find eye contact painful.  This might seem odd, but whether it seems odd or not, it is a fact.  Making eye contact with someone while they speak is the equivalent of a neuro-typical person having to dig a pin in to their finger during every conversation they have.  Others simply find that they can’t concentrate on what is being said if they have to look at the person’s eyes.   They spend so much time trying to make sure they have the right eye contact that they completely miss what is being said to them.  Most autistic people find it awkward, or embarrassing to have to make, and maintain eye contact.  It doesn’t feel right or natural, and it makes the whole experience of conversation difficult, and uncomfortable.

However, eye contact isn’t always perceived as a good thing; in some cultures it is considered rude to look directly in to someone’s eyes.  Looking at the floor might be seen as a sign of respect when talking to the police or other authority figures in some cultures, but Western culture tends to place extraordinary emphasis on things such as making eye contact, or shaking hands.  People will use phrases such as `you can tell a lot about a man by his handshake` Obviously this isn’t true.  You can`t tell anything about anybody from the way they shake hands; there could be any number of reasons why their handshake is weak, or firm, for example.  And equally you can`t tell what somebody thinks or feels about you by how much eye contact they make.

Some people have a belief that people who don’t make eye contact are dishonest.  Well, this is such a widely held belief that it seems obvious that anybody who was actually trying to lie would make sure to make eye contact when doing so.  If anyone has any lingering doubts that you can`t lie when looking somebody in the eyes, go find somebody, and do a test with them.  Look each other in the eye and say three things, two of them true, one of them a lie.  See if there is any difference in where their eyes fall or how their face looks.  The likelihood is that if they struggle to look you in the eyes they will struggle whether they are telling the truth or lying, and if they can do it easily then they will keep it up throughout the truth and the lie.

Due to the cultural emphasis we place on eye contact, not making eye contact can be perceived as a sign of weakness, or shiftiness.  Some people – including the police – could find a lack of eye contact disrespectful, and even insulting.  To them it may look as if the person with autism is simply uninterested in what is being said, or in what is happening around them.  It can also be perceived as a sign of nervousness; the police may think that somebody is more suspicious if they can`t make eye contact when being questioned.  The police may even ask for somebody to look at them if they are questioning them, or arresting them on the street.  This may look even more like a sign of disrespect if the autistic person were to refuse.  There are preconceived ideas, shared by a large number of neuro-typical people, when it comes to what certain nonverbal signs such as eye contact mean.  The only problem is, these don’t apply to people with autism.

What would be nice to see is a cultural shift that moves away from judging people based on outdated views of body-language, and nonverbal communication.  There are many stereotypes based around body language – it might be perceived that the student who is always slouching, and looking out of the window is uninterested, and unwilling to learn, and yet he or she might be the only person paying complete attention in the entire room.  It may just be that they do not need to look straight ahead to do so.  It is silly for one person to say `I do this with my nose when I lie, therefore everyone who ever does this is lying`.

Of course body language can betray people, and a cultural shift doesn’t mean disregarding the reading of body language entirely, in fact it could mean expanding this; understanding that not every single gesture or movement will have only one meaning.  Meanings change depending on the individual and the circumstances.  Not being able to make or maintain eye contact will mean completely different things for different people, at different times and in different cultures.  And it is important that this is remembered, and understood by the police, and the criminal justice system as a whole when questioning somebody they know, or suspect to be autistic.

  • Jess says:

    I love this post for awareness. I think it also reminds us as people how far we’ve come, that things may not always be what they seem. I also find it comforting, in a way, because I have an increasingly difficult time making eye contact. I waste so much energy worrying that my lack of eye contact, which is apparently widely recognized as a sign of respect, that I lose sight of the conversation – no pun intended. Okay, slight pun intended. I was also once told that “this person didn’t make eye contact; he must be lying about something. This bothered me. I’ve always had an issue with lying and I can’t make eye contact. I pointed this out and was called a liar as well. This was before my familiarity with autism, so I was very confused as to how a person who didn’t make eye contact was considered a liar. I thought, maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe if I force myself to look at someone’s eyeballs when I’m talking (shudder), then I’m not lying. I even pulled out a dictionary to look up the word “lie” to see if there was any related information about eye contact. I researched how-tos on making eye contact. But no matter what info I could gather, it was all just so impossible. This is my battle with autism. As much as I want to accept myself and grow, I hate the feeling of being abandoned on the wrong planet, living amongst creatures that demand the things I cannot do or give. Still, I do find it comforting that there is a reasonable explanation for my difficulties, and that I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing; I really enjoyed this post!

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