Some thoughts on eye contact

I’ve been wearing eyeglasses since the age of eight. The narrative is a familiar one: I couldn’t see the chalkboard at school, walked into telephone poles, made head contact with dodge balls more often than usual. I remember my first trip to the optometrist, a small balding man with a penchant for incomprehensible soccer truisms, and I also remember him announcing that I had a birthmark in my left eye in addition to very high eye pressure, the latter a potential risk for glaucoma.

I never had a gradual adjustment period with my glasses — the doctor insisted that I could only remove them when I bathed, slept, and played soccer (and I didn’t play soccer, and wasn’t quite sure why he kept droning on and on about soccer). Once I started wearing the glasses — bright pink frames encasing mammoth lenses — colors grew darker, faces became less fuzzy, and I could see the contours of my hand again.

Shortly after I’d adjusted to re-seeing, my younger brother got ahold of my glasses and popped out one of the lenses. My mother hadn’t the time on this particular day to purchase an eyeglass repair kit, and suddenly, without my glasses, I couldn’t filter between sounds. One of my parents would speak to me, the sound growing as muddled as my vision. My father, also known as The Impatient Parent, grew angry and very loudly demanded to know why I wasn’t answering him. After I replied that I couldn’t hear very well without my glasses, he grew angrier and sent me to my room.

I reflect on this particular day of my third-grade life, trying to recount what I heard exactly. My senses have always had a tendency to jumble, to blur: sometimes I’m unable to discern which “input” is overloading me, or one particular input converges with another, or I just totally lose track of all input and enter trance mode.

Yet, I think that sensory dysfunction wasn’t — and isn’t — the whole story here. Lately, I’ve been super conscious about my eyes, where they look, how often they dart, whether they meet with another pair of eyes. And while I’ve always felt that eye contact is “unnatural” for me, I’ve never really thought about why this is so. And tonight, during book club, I realized where my default “gaze” landed in a group where autistics are the majority: the lips.

I can’t decipher a person’s emotions based on the dilating of pupils, the half-closure of eyelids, the flicker of irises, the subtleties of eyelash movement. But I can recognize a smile, a smirk, a frown, a tongue. And if I combine those lip movements with the volume level of a person’s voice, I’m much more likely to reach an accurate emotional interpretation than I am if I’m focusing on eyeball gymnastics. I wonder if the eight-year-old me interpreted hearing synaesthetically, as an alternative form of nonverbal communication, one that made more sense than pure auditory listening. As a child, I’d sometimes move my lips and would assume others could “hear” me — because I sometimes couldn’t discriminate between the words in my head and the words escaping my mouth. Even today, I have voice modulation issues: it’s difficult for me to speak in the perfect “inside voice,” to recognize whether I’m too soft or too loud. Even when I whisper, my voice sounds loud to me.

Certainly, my eye contact and voice modulation “differences” were more visible and pronounced when I was younger — but, in some ways, those differences were more acceptable then than they are now. An eight-year-old who refuses to look at her teacher and speaks in mousy (and/or non-existent) tones is read as “shy” and “cute” and “silly.” It’s not so cute and silly now.

My eighth-grade Drama/English teacher made me her eye-contact-and-voice-projection project. I’d stay after school and she’d force me to look at her. While talking loudly. While robotically moving and hand-ticcing. I soon became her body-language project as well: I was perpetually stiff and stimmy.

This past summer, I pulled out videos of my eighth-grade performances, plays where I somehow managed to land large roles. Upon hitting play, I reeled away from the TV screen, semi-mortified: my hand gestures looked as if I were doing a really bad version of the robot dance. And my voice — I couldn’t quite see my face, so I couldn’t quite read or hear everything — but it sounded very monotone-like. Very marked, in the way we might think of difference being marked or markable.

“Stare at the bridges of their noses,” Mrs. H would say. “Look at the back wall. Move to stage left. No — the other stage left. Lower your hands. Hands at your sides — put your hands at your sides. Pick up the quill — and stop wringing your hands. Stop wringing your hands. Count to three between each sentence. Count to three after every punctuation mark. Louder. Louder. Look me in the eye. ”

I feel as though I’ve naturalized “mortified,” as though I have embodied a state of mortification. Watching old videos and looking at old photos is almost painful — and yet, it shouldn’t be.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d been diagnosed much earlier, in kindergarten. Who would I be now? How much more or less would the autism have been beaten out of me? Would I even attempt to pass? Would I have felt more confident in being the autistic me, rather than the faux-NT me? Would I like and appreciate my younger, videotaped self more?

A girl toddler with a book is being hugged by a boy toddler. The girl is younger and is looking away from the camera, while the boy is smiling, looking toward the camera, and pushing the girl's face toward the camera. My cousin trying to turn my face toward the camera

me and santaStimming is more fun than Santa

I realize that, lately, a dominant theme of this blog has been about de-binarizing disability. Yet, being a binary would be so much easier to identify with than being an autistic who feels compelled to pass, yet so often fails (and fails hard). (And I suppose that this “easiness” is the problem with binaries — so unrealistic, so simplistic, so twofold.) Sometimes I wonder: do I have autism or passism?

PETA’s new ad campaign

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals) launched a new ad campaign three weeks ago in their fight against cow milk:

Got autism?

I’m not entirely sure where to start here, PETA. First of all, though I realize that ads meant for billboards and quick web visits are meant to be image-heavy and textually sparse, you’ve provided a whole lot of misinformation in your few measly independent clauses. In asking the lovely “Got autism?” question, are you trying to be sardonic and rhetorical, or are you in fact addressing the 20 million autistics who currently occupy planet earth? Because, sure, I’ve got autism, and no, I had no idea that studies linked cow’s milk to autism. But perhaps your “study” is actually synonymous with what I would call “total crap.” Just a thought. Although, since I’m autistic, it might be that my inner thesaurus is operating on some totally whacked out, casein-induced frenzy. Or how about not?

Anecdotally, some autistics note amelioration of their “symptoms” — e.g., isolation, meltdowns, sensory overload — when they’ve removed dairy and wheat from their diet. (Of course, PETA, you would never crusade against wheat.) However, this “improvement” is anecdotal and not scientific. It could be that some autistics experience food intolerances or digestive problems. But, see, there’s a big problem with this “link” word, PETA, because any protective parent who reads this will assume that milk has been shown to have a causative impact on autism, which it simply doesn’t. There are plenty of vegan autistics who are just as autistic as ever. I suppose, on the positive side, if people were to assume that milk does cause autism, then maybe they’d get their kids vaccinated and stop with the mercury-poisoning mantras.

And then there’s that frowny face, PETA. The Cheerios are a nice touch, really. I’m glad you didn’t use Fruit Loops, because then that might play into the assumption that only autistic children are worth giving a crap about.  But the frown — oh, the frown. I may have difficulty with nonverbals and facial expressions, but I think I’m accurate in concluding that Mr. Cheerio Face is quite weepy and pathetic. Basically, PETA, you and Mr. Cheerio Face are making the assumption that autism is a sad, sad thing. And, quite honestly, it’s not. Autism is a way of life, much like veganism, minus the liking of food-with-freaky-textures thing.

On another page, you write:

Autism is a brain disorder that causes sufferers to have extreme difficulty communicating and relating to others. It is often marked by anti-social behavior like screaming and obsessive repetition of actions, which takes an enormous emotional toll on sufferers and their families. PETA has created a billboard to alert the public to the connection between this devastating disease and dairy-product consumption. …

Anyone who wants to alleviate or avoid the devastating effects of autism should give cow’s milk the boot and switch to healthy vegan alternatives instead.

Again, PETA, you’ve mixed up some pretty important facts. Autism isn’t a disease.  It isn’t something that you wake up with one morning; it isn’t something that you catch on the subway; it isn’t something that goes away. Autism is a neurological condition, a condition that affects how one’s brain is wired. Autistic brains and autistic existence aren’t devastatingly anything, unless you’re claiming that they’re devastatingly awesome.

You ask, “Got autism?” I say, “Yes, I do.” Somehow, though, I don’t think you were ever asking me anything in the first place.

Keep on chugging!