Eye contact

I haven’t said much on the topic of eye contact but its a hotly debated issue when talking about autism. When I worked for an ABA company I was made to force the children I worked with to make eye contact with me and keep data on it. As an autistic person, I sat down with my supervisor and just briefly told her that I felt forcing children to make eye contact was unethical. She listened and thank me for my input but explained that if the parents wanted us to work on eye contact we were contractable obligated to to so. It was also a part of the company’s curriculum. So when I worked with the kids I told them that if they didn’t like making eye contact they could look between someone’s eyebrows or at the bridge of their glasses if they wore them. People see that as appropriate eye contact and its what I’ve done for years. Some autistics describe eye contact as painful or that they feel they are going to lose some part of themself when making eye contact. “Problems” with eye contact are a hallmark of the “social defecit” model of autism.

So here’s my experiences with eye contact as an autistic. I was often told “Look me in the eye” as a child. Its an awful demand and I learned the trick of looking close to the eyes but not actually at them early on. I don’t feel physical discomfort making eye contact but I see it as pointless. I get absoluetely nothing from making eye contact. A person’s eyes tell me absoluetely nothing. I get no ideas about a person’s emotional state when making direct eye contact. I do find it distressing because its taking away from what I really need to do when talking to someone. I study a person’s face and body to help me figure out what they are feeling. I’ve learned some short cuts to body language over time and prefer to look at a person as a whole when interacting socially. When looking at a person’s eyes I mentally obsess about what I’m missing by not looking at the person as a whole.

I like to look at people’s eyes briefly because eye color is so different from person to person and I love all the different hues. But that’s all I get from looking at a person’s eyes. Nothing else. The eyes tell me nothing. So I dislike having to maintain direct eye contact. That’s just my experience but the more info known the better autism in all its variety can be understood.

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Being Diagnosed with Autism and Psychological Comorbidities

I thought I’d focus on my being diagnosed with autism and comorbid conditions. Comorbid conditions are common with a diagnosis of autism. Comorbidities are the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. There are many conditions that are commonly diagnosed with autism. I’ll focus on a few of my psychological comorbidities in this post.

As it got closer to my high school graduation I started to change in ways I didn’t understand. I started having trouble falling asleep at night because i was gripped by a paralyzing fear that something terrible was going to happen to my family. A break-in where the robbers were going to kill all the witnesses. My mom and my two sisters raped. My baby brothers tortured and mutilated. My brain told me that if I stayed awake this disaster scenario would be avoided. So I stayed awake. After awhile the solution to preventing my nightmare changed. If I checked all the windows during the daytime and then the doors three times at night everything would be okay. Eventually that fear changed too. The nightmare scenario no longer haunted me but leaving the house for any reason but going to school filled me with a deep dread. I stopped going over to my friend S’s house which was something I’d done nearly every day for almost two years. She would invite me but I wasn’t feeling well. Stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea (not new to me) happened with a new frequency. I couldn’t trust my body.

But that was okay. I didn’t feel like eating. All I really wanted to do was sleep. When I got up in the morning for school I would get dressed, put my hair up, and lay back down until my mom called for me to get in the car. I went to school and then back home. At home I laid down down on the closet floor in my room and just stayed there. Sometimes I slept, mostly I didn’t. I converted oxygen into carbon dioxide. My memories from that time period are very vague. I know a long time schoolmate told me that I had changed and wasn’t my usual self. I knew it to be true but didn’t really care.

Shortly before I graduated we moved from my childhood home. I began having these attacks of intense fear. I would feel overly hot, sweat, shake. My heart would race and race, hammering in my chest. I would struggle to breath, experience numbness and tingling in my extremities, and was convinced i could not survive this terror. That my hear would give out. Sometimes I would cry uncontrollably during these attacks. Sometimes I’d cry after and occasionally I wouldn’t cry at all. Usually I’d fall into a deep sleep when the storm had passed. I graduated high school but didn’t leave for college. I was too scared. Scared of new places and new people. Too scared to leave my family. I started at a local community college a year after I graduated from high school. Two years later I left for university.

I had always been an anxious kid. I “came from a family of worriers” I was often told. I was a “worry wart”. I thought too much, spent too much time inside my head. I needed to try harder to think positively.

Rubbish, bunk, and nonsense.

How were you supposed to get out of your head? How do you stop thinking? Try harder? I had to force myself to walk in a crowd, to get to a classroom. The courage it took to raise my hand to participate left me mentally and physically exhausted. How much harder could I try? I barely had anything left and still had to go to work. And while we’re at it, what did I have to be sad about? People have it much harder than me after all.

Cheer up, toughen up, think positively damn you!

I knew I had had a major depressive episode. I knew I had an anxiety disorder. But my family and my culture see mental illness in black and white. You are either crazy or you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re wallowing. You’re feeling sorry for yourself. You aren’t trying hard enough!

My depression returned my first lonely semester at university. But thing were different now. The student health center was across the street from my dorm building and the counseling center a short walk away. After several days of interviews and testing I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, panic disorder with agoraphobia, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and a math learning disorder (more on that one later).

I met the majority of diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome. I display a marked impairment in facial expressions and in maintaining proper nonverbal behaviors. I fail to develop appropriate peer relationships and lack social and emotional reciprocity. I adhere to inflexible schedules of specific, nonfunctional routines. I have an intense need for sameness and consistency. I have several repetitive mannerisms, such as rocking when seated and standing. My developmental history clearly showed restricted social and emotional abilities, inadequate communication skills, uneven cognitive abilities, and an excessive and/or abnormal on special interests. My rate and tone of speech are often flat. I avoid making eye contact. I often display a significant lack of affect.

Autism all around, that’s me.