One of the greater challenges of being an autistic professional in a neurotypical world is the expectation of making eye contact during conversations. For a neurotypical person, eye contact is a positive and reassuring behavior. But for the autist, it can be extremely uncomfortable, or even overwhelming.
Some can manage to make eye contact, but it can be even more disconcerting for the other person, who may describe the experience as like being studied or analyzed more than conversed with. If eye contact isn’t going to add value to the conversation, or worse yet, diminish its value, we need other ways to help our colleagues to feel engaged.
This is not an easy problem to solve. Some will have an easier time of it than others. Some of us have developed a mask that we wear, to mimic the behaviors of successful neurotypical people, rather than utilizing them in an intuitive and natural way.
If you’re one of those lucky people who gets to work remotely, there is a trick for video conferences. Set your conference software up such that your own camera view is the maximized window, and other participants get smaller panes. When you engage in the call, it’ll be more like you’re looking at yourself, and thus far less stressful. But you’ll still have peripheral view of other participants.
But if your meeting is in-person, the task is more daunting. The person to whom you are speaking may expect eye contact from you to gauge your engagement level and your sincerity. Omitting eye contact may be interpreted as apathy, or even dishonesty.
But there are other behaviors that you can incorporate to convey the same things.
There are other behaviors that you can incorporate to convey the same things as eye contact. Your posture is another thing that the other person will be evaluating. Are your arms crossed? That’s telling them that you’re putting up a wall. Leaning in to the conversation conveys a sense of engagement. Watch how people use their hands when they are speaking to someone else, and how it may differ when they are trying to make a point, or convincing someone of something, or making a commitment. You may find some success in incorporating similar use of somatic language in your own dialogs. If someone is talking to you, and you lean in towards them with an ear turned towards them, it tells them you are listening. Nodding when you understand a point that was made will help to let them know that you’re paying attention. Perhaps even ask a clarifying question to let them know you’re trying to understand their point of view, even if you believe you already understand it.
If you can convince your colleagues of your engagement and sincerity through posture and somatic language, as well as through the other techniques described, they may be more forgiving of your lack of eye contact.
It’s come to my attention that there are neurotypical readers of this column, looking for better ideas about how to integrate autistic colleagues into their teams. First, you’re very welcome. Thank you for your interest. If you have a colleague that is on the spectrum, or you suspect is on the spectrum, understand that there are things that you can do, as well. Trying to force eye contact may feel threatening or overwhelming to us. Try to have some understanding in this. Verbal conversations may be challenging. And your window of opportunity to engage may be short. Try to be efficient with your engagements.
What techniques are you using to get around the eye contact problem? Please let us know in the comments section below. And may success be yours!