An Autistic experience with Eye Contact
I clearly remember the first time I consciously made eye contact with another human being. I would have been between the ages of seven and eight. It was also the first occasion I can recall going to see a psychologist. He was an American- the first one I’d ever met.
While he was interviewing me he asked me to look him directly in the eye. It took me a good ten minutes to build up the courage. I’ll never forget my heart pumping in my chest as I looked up at him. He had bright blue eyes. From his smile and his gentle manner I could tell he was a good-hearted man but that didn’t mean I could relax. My autism doesn't allow me much room for relaxing with people.
He was tall and lanky like a stick insect. So that’s how I remember him and how I refer to him even now. I prefer nicknames.
Before the Stick Insect no one had ever confronted me about eye contact in such a direct manner. Relatives of mine had nagged me about always looking down at the ground. Pop and Mother used to belt me for doing it. Nanna was always asking me what I had to be ashamed of- which just made things worse.
I’ve always felt intensely ashamed to be me. I suppose that’s part of the intense self-awareness that marks my autism. However, shame was also used by my carers in an attempt to re-programme me to be, what was in their eyes, normal.
The Stick-Insect realised during our meeting that I was autistic. At age seven I was still spending a large part of my day sitting in a corner, off in my own little world. I suppose my problems with eye contact probably clinched the diagnosis as far as he was concerned. After that Mother used to give me an awful time about looking other people in the eyes. She’d grab me under the chin and force me to face strangers. I’d just scream.
I didn’t really get the hang of eye contact until I was eighteen or thereabouts but the anxiety never, ever faded. Later I learned to be able to shut down while making eye contact. After that everyday life became a little easier because there was one less thing about me that appeared abnormal to most people.
I have to say that eye contact has been one of the most difficult hurdles for me to deal with. This is not just simply because it is unnatural for me to engage in it as frequently as most non-autistic people can. It’s also because I easily learned when it was appropriate to make eye contact but I didn’t immediately grasp that there were times when it was inappropriate to make eye contact. This was to place me in some rather dangerous situations during my travels. I remember when I was living in Spain I came very close to getting into real trouble- but I’ll save that story for another time.
After I’d learned to make eye contact a whole new set of problems arose for me. I could present myself as normal but the simple fact remained that, according to the prejudiced, narrow, hypocritical standards prevalent in our society I was not normal at all. It’s impossible to hide the so-called symptoms of autism, even in someone like me; who doesn’t necessarily comply to the common but twisted caricature of a writhing, speechless cripple.
Autistic symptoms can be plastered over but the cracks always come to the surface. I encountered so many small-minded ignorant people who’d spot tiny discrepancies and jump to the conclusion that I was mentally disturbed, psychotic, a sociopath or whatever other ill-informed hypothesis they came up with. I've always said that prejudice is based on ignorance and ignorance can be cured. Nowadays I'm beginning to understand that my symptoms aren't the problem- your perception of my symptoms is the problem.
In my twenties I decided I wanted to be normal. So I studied for a practical degree in theatre studies. This put me on the stage and forced me to confront my relationships with others. It was a wonderful challenge and it opened up a whole world for me that hadn't been possible before. In my thirties I was able to take what I’d learned at theatre school and put it to good use.
When my fantasy novels became bestsellers I was called upon to speak at conferences, on television and on radio. Book-signings were the hardest for me and still cause me terrible stress. I’ve never been very comfortable one on one with people but put me in front of an audience of three thousand and I have no problems at all. This apparent contradiction brought me more flak from folks who were eager to punch holes in my success to make themselves feel better about their own dreary lives.
By the time my career as a writer was really taking off I had a number of people trying to force their amateur diagnoses on me. I never let on that I was autistic because that word was commonly used as a term of derision and I didn’t want to give anyone more fuel for their prejudice-fire.
These days I’m rediscovering the freedom not to make eye contact if I don’t want to. It's an extremely calming experience to know that I don’t have to look someone in the eyes if I’m not comfortable. My wife, Helen, is very supportive of me. She completely understands that sometimes the world is simply too overwhelming for me. It’s wonderful to know that I don’t have to pretend to be “normal” any more.
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© Caiseal Mór 2011