Aspies have a well-documented love/hate relationship with eye contact. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, eye contact may be nearly impossible, marginally uncomfortable, or just confusing. I find that I am easily capable of eye contact with strangers, but the more I know someone, the more disoriented I am by looking them straight in the eye. There is now simply too much information in their glance, and it is easier to read their expressions if I am not looking straight at them – like the way you can’t look directly at the sun.
I don’t get complaints about this, and it’s easy to see why. People might tell a child, “LOOK at me when I’m talking to you!”, but that freedom thankfully becomes socially unacceptable when you’re speaking to an adult. Also, I cover pretty well. I always have. I can look at the bridge of someone’s nose and give a pretty decent approximation of eye contact, but it is telling to me that I cannot come up with the exact eye color of most of the musicians I work with on a weekly basis.
There is, as I am discovering to be the case with many Aspie qualities, a positive flip side to this. I may be overwhelmed by the sounds and smells and brightness of the grocery store, but I can happily chat with the person bagging their groceries across from me. I will only “know them” for three minutes of our lives, and this quick snapshot of their day doesn’t tell me enough about them to form the level of connection that makes it hard to look at them. I am no respecter of persons when it comes to this, and I suspect this odd approach to social interaction is another of the checkmarks on the Asperger’s assessment I had done a few weeks ago. If someone seems chatty, I’ll talk to them, regardless of age, gender, facility with the English language, or number of children hanging from their various limbs.
I understand, I really do, that a propensity for looking people straight in the eye when you’ve just met them can be a little disconcerting. Part of this comes, I think, from being an American. We’re a little weird that way. Part of it, too, is a remnant of the social behavior learned at the small college I attended. Visiting speakers often commented that students actually looked at them and said “hello” when they passed them on campus, and that the school’s friendliness was unusual even among religious institutions, where you’d expect friendliness to be the norm. Most of it, though, is just me. People fascinate me, perhaps even more so because I understand most of them so little.
It may show up on my assessment as a deviation from normal standards of social behavior, but I actually quite like this particular trait. It means that I see people who are not always seen. I may not give the panhandler on Liberty Street a dollar every time, but I will look him in the eye, and more than one grungy fellow in knit cap and old fatigues has looked at me in startled wonder at simply being seen. I love to return the direct, unflinching gaze of a toddler who has not yet conformed to societal norms, and to be occasionally rewarded with a wide, sparkly-eyed grin. It makes my day better to look right at the tired girl behind the counter at the drugstore while I make my purchase, and see her face light up when she realizes that I recognize her as a fellow human being.
I am particularly bad (good?) about this when I am reading a book while I eat my lunch in a restaurant. If I am reading something funny and engaging, I fall headlong into my book, smiling and chuckling with absolute lack of awareness for anyone who may be around me. More than once I have looked up from my book after a particularly giggly bit, cheeks still pink and eyes dancing from laughter, and I will realize that some poor unsuspecting businessman at the next table at Subway has just gotten the full force of a smile that would normally only be seen by a close friend or lover. Every time, though, they smile back.
This kind of abnormal, I think I can live with.