As a child I used not to be able to look anybody in the eyes for more than a few seconds. I can't remember if I thought much about it, but I can remember how extremely uncomfortable it was. As I grew older, I began to realise how important eye contact was, and I started working on making eye contact for longer periods – not because I found it necessary, but I wanted to communicate like other people did, I wanted them to like me, and I still believed that “one day when I grow up, I will stop being different”. I wanted to be seen as trustworthy, honest and self assured – all the things that seemed to depend on eye contact. So I forced myself to look others in the eyes when I talked to them. I could manage it after a while, but the price was high. Making eye contact made me hear less of what was being said. It took so much energy that I probably could read even less non-verbal clues than usually. I don't know what I looked like, but I can remember folding my arms tightly to help me feel a bit grounded and safe. I remember struggling to breathe, I can remember frowning. The hardest was keeping the dizziness under control. I can vividly remember the feeling of the room starting to 'move' from side to side. And my head with it – I had to concentrate on keeping my neck and my body still while feeling so dizzy.
I would not blame people if they thought then that I seemed awkward and unfriendly and rigid, the immense struggle was all on the inside.
On the whole I think it was worth it. I hope it was worth it. I have no idea if I am seen as honest and self assured, and I hope that people feel less uncomfortable talking to me than they would have if I did not make eye contact. And I do like looking at people without feeling dizzy.
Still, I do not think the eye contact I am making is the same as when two non autistic people do it. I often feel as if I am looking at somebody's eyes instead of into them. With everybody except close family, the eye contact is guarded without me trying to keep it like that. I think part of it is protecting myself. It often happens that I make sudden eye contact with somebody, usually a stranger, and that contact is real. The reason I look at them is usually because I realise they are upset in some way, and they catch my eyes before I can avert them. And then my guard is down, and I look into their eyes. And it feels like a wave of emotion that physically hits me. My throat closes, and I usually can't prevent myself from crying, I am not even surprised if I have a anxiety attack any more. It is like jumping right into someone's pain, and being burnt by it. It is overwhelming. And it is not useful – all that I can do is to get away, there is no way I can help or console or do anything for the other person.
I am autistic. I am supposed to have very little empathy and compassion. That is not true. I turn away and seem cold and aloof because I feel too much, I have to save myself from being consumed.