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Decoupling Eye Contact and Attention

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

What is this “Eye Contact” you ask me for?

Eye contact wasn't something I consciously thought about for most of my life. When I was a child, the important grownups in my life said things like; "She's shy" or "She's a really deep thinker, isn't she?" or "She's off in her own little world." I notice when I am mentally processing my deep thoughts my eyes glaze over a bit and my vision blurs so I can more clearly see the pictures in my mind and try to mentally capture words to describe them. I have no problem looking other people in the eyes sometimes. My way of mostly avoiding eye contact with other people was so normal to me it never registered as avoiding eye contact. I had no idea other people had different expectations around eye contact until someone pointed it out in my mid-thirties.

Sitting next to my partner on the small couch in our couple therapist's office, my eyes were glazed over blurring the red carpet with the golden Celtic squares on the floor, as I tried to verbally articulate my emotional experience. The therapist chimed in at this moment: "I notice you don't look at your partner when you're talking to him. Look him in the eyes and tell him that.” My immediate thought when she said that was, "You don't understand! I can't do that." And then I thought "Wait... I don't make eye contact!?!?"

But why would anyone make eye contact when it isn’t safe to do so? At the time, because I didn't fully understand myself or what was happening, I forced myself to make eye contact and tried to finish what I was saying. After this session I felt so confused and disconcerted. Why do I default to not making eye contact? Is that not typical? Why does eye contact often come with a crippling sense of paralysis and fear?

Have I avoided eye contact so skillfully throughout my life that I didn't realize others want it because I wasn't looking at their faces to see whether or not they were seeking eye contact?!?

I was bothered by my visceral reaction to the observation that I don't make eye contact. So I did what every thoughtful modern girl would do… I searched the internet: "Why don't people make eye contact?" I learned people who have experienced emotional abuse will often avoid eye contact, and told myself that must be the reason. But this memory kept haunting me from my early childhood (around 5 years old) when my dance teacher asked me a question. My eyes glazed over and I went still and quiet and furrowed my brow searching the depths of my brain images for the words I needed to articulate my answer. (It’s hard to find words when one’s brain speaks in pictures.)

In this memory there was no felt sense of a trauma, no emotional abuse fueled reason to not make eye contact. I was avoiding it because looking into someone's eyes for me causes a tsunami of additional input - their feelings, thoughts, ideas, and soul will crash through me and pummel out any chance of hanging onto my own identity, thoughts, and words. With the realization that eye contact in an intense experience for me the idea that I am actually Neurodivergent began to sink in. I experience eye contact differently from many people because my brain and nervous system are different.

Eye Contact Is Not Necessary For Attention

After my self-discovery around eye contact I started to notice that as a parent to two neurodivergent girls I was perpetuating a societal assumption that eye contact was necessary for attention. I kept asking the girls to look me in the eyes when I was speaking with them – and quickly realized this wasn’t good for them or for me. Attention doesn’t require eye contact. They often hear me better, and I speak more clearly, if we all keep our eyes wherever is most comfortable for us.

It seems to be general knowledge (and scientific studies support) that if you reduce sensory stimulus in one channel of sensation ones sensory perception in another sense will improve. For example, if you close your eyes, you can hear more clearly and accurately the soundscape around you. This is because your brain has less simultaneous processing to do across multiple senses. Why then, do people forget this when having a conversation with someone, and insist on eye contact, when they may experience better communication without eye contact?

I’m having to unlearn our societal programing that has merged attention with eye contact. I've eliminated what I’ve now realized can be harmful rhymes I learned in educational settings used to get eye contact from kids.

"1, 2, 3, Eyes on me"

"1, 2, Eyes on you!”

Now, I simply say "Hey, may I have your attention please?” or "I need your attention right now."

If I don't get a response. I'll ask them a question: "Do I have your attention?"

Or make a request of them: "Let me know when you're ready."

Here, I wait for a response from each of them. The response can be any verbal or non-verbal cue that tells me they have turned enough attention to me to take in and process what I have to say. Then I speak with them, keeping my words as clear as possible.

If I'm unsure my message was heard, I check for comprehension by asking a direct question:

"So what needs to happen before TV time?"

Again... I wait for a reply (verbal or non-verbal), so that I know I was heard. No eye contact required, but the communication happened clearly while staying respectful of different communication styles.

Here is a recipe sans eye contact you might try for clearly communicating with a Neurodivergent person in a non-emergency situation:

1. Make a clear request for their consent to have their attention.

Examples: "May I have your attention?" "May we speak for a moment?" "Could we have a check-in?" "Is now a good time to touch base?"

*A note on requesting consent to communicate: Transitions can be a challenge and Neurodivergent people will often require extra time to change gears. Shifting attention from a thought process or activity they’re currently invested in to your voice is a transition. If possible allow for space and time for them to answer.

Sometimes my children will hold up their point finger in a “wait a min” gesture to let me know they’ve heard my request, and need a bit to complete what they are doing before they are ready to hear me out. I honor this whenever it isn’t an urgent matter.

Creating additional pressure to answer when one's brain is already trying to process the additional input of your voice and your request will slow down, short circuit, or overwhelm the process and potentially cause a breakdown of communication. You’re better off taking a slow deep breath and quietly waiting for a cue that they’re ready.

**A 2nd note on requesting consent to communicate: Some baseline of safety and emotional stability is required for communication between two people. There will be occasions when a Neurodivergent person is not available for communication due to sensory overwhelm, feeling unsafe with a fight, flight, or freeze response, or emotionally overwhelmed. If you make a request for communication that is turned down or ignored – please understand it most likely isn’t about you, let them know you’ll try back another time, and honor whatever boundary they establish. This will help build trust in the long run, and make future communication more easeful.

If there is a safety issue or matter requiring immediate attention state so clearly and directly, and take prompt appropriate action.

Wait for a clear reply: A verbal or non-verbal reply that they consent to engage with you.

Verbal Examples: Yes. Sure. Okay. Sounds good. What’s up?

Non-Verbal Examples: Nodding. Rocking. Stopping current activity. Engaging in self-stimulating behaviors (stimming) to improve audible comprehension. Closing eyes. Pacing.

Non-verbal replies can have a lot of different meanings that are different from cultural norms. If you don’t know the person well, and aren’t sure, ask a Yes/No question that they can answer non-verbally. “Does rocking mean you’re ready to begin?

2. Confirm they’re ready to begin.

Have they transitioned their attention to you? If it’s not clear, ask: "Ready?" "Do I have your attention now?" "Let me know when you're ready."

Wait for a clear reply.

Give any additional time requested if possible.

3. Deliver your message.

Say what you have to say as clearly and concisely as possible, including the “why” of what you are saying so that we can comprehend the reasons for your request or communication. Assume competence and don't explain things more than once unless requested to do so. Patronizing, invalidating, or talking down to someone will not only lead to a breakdown in communication but it will also leave a bitter taste.

4. Check for comprehension. (Optional depending on context /who your communicating with.)

Ask a short clear question about what you just said. (Some communication methods recommend you ask the other person to fully relay back to you what they heard your request to be, but I find this is often too much information to parse. It can also feel robotic or procedural for some.) I prefer to ask a specific action question on how they plan to respond to my request. This often requires less words in the response. You can incorporate humor here if it seems appropriate to the topic and situation.

"So, as soon as you're done with the chapter in the book, you'll do what?"

“Going forward, if I’m feeling upset and ask you for some space to process, how will you respond?”

5. Offer a positive and clear conclusion so that they know the communication is complete. “All set!” “That sounds good.” “Thanks – that’s a great solution.” “I appreciate your time.” “You’ve got it.”

Like with any recipe, make modifications that work for you. Sprinkle in some extra cinnamon on Sundays and top it off with a rich molasses, but hold the eye contact please.

Because eye contact comfort levels and needs are different for everyone, it’s important to have ways to establish and trust you have someone’s attention without insisting on eye contact. Eye contact for many Neurodivergent folks is anxiety inducing and overwhelming. It can actually harm attentiveness. I hope by experimenting with this recipe for improved communication you come up with your own concoction that is more inclusive for the Neurodivergent people in your life.

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