Ironically, Oculus Orbus Was My Favourite Mad Ball

April 1, 2011

Neurotypicals are supposed to be the ones with the innate mad social skills and superpowers in the ancient art of nonverbal communication, and yet it’s the people on the autism spectrum who have to train themselves to behave differently so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of their more “normal” counterparts.

And so I, as a person with Asperger’s, must dedicate a fairly significant amount of my energy and mental faculties to modifying my behaviour so that I don’t make people uncomfortable. I’ve become pretty skilled at a lot of the tasks. I can talk about the weather like a champ. For the most part, when people ask me how I’m doing, I don’t actually tell them the truth. The demon eye contact continues to baffle me, though.

Part of it is that eye contact can be quite unpleasant for me, as it is for many people on the spectrum. But I think my biggest issue is that I just don’t get it, and it’s hard to constantly engage in any ritual that makes no effing sense to you and gives you no useful feedback.

The weather? That one was relatively easy. I simply went and developed an actual interest in it. I walk to the subway every day. I do most of my running outdoors. Therefore, I am actually quite connected to the weather and have an investment in its patterns. If someone comments on it, I don’t have to be annoyed by this thing that normal people call small talk, because the subject actually has relevance to my life.

Responding to “How are you?” with “Fine, thanks, and you?” is starting to become a more natural reflex. I mess up sometimes, and actually tell people how I am (and then I occasionally tell them other stuff, as detailed a couple of posts below), but I at least logically understand and appreciate the exchange. “How are you?” in NT basically means “I acknowledge and welcome your presence in a friendly but distant manner in accordance with the extent and depth of our acquaintance” in Aspie, and I can appreciate that sentiment, so I at least try to respond in kind with a “Well thanks. And you?”

But eye contact? I’m told that it helps NTs feel like I am paying attention to them and that I care about what they are saying. Personally, I tend to try to demonstrate these things by paying attention to people and giving a shit about what they are saying, but NTs apparently have some sort of wonder twin power where they lock their eyes and just feel the other person’s attention-paying and shit-giving. At least that’s what it seems like, from the highly refined research I’ve done on the subject: a heady and highly academic blend of articles on Asperger’s and eye contact, and a bunch of song lyrics about eyes (except Dio, because his people have ocular rainbows, and I suspect that’s a different thing). I don’t really feel any of that when my eyes fix on another pair.  Sometimes I look at the veins in the person’s eye. Sometimes, if the eyes are shiny enough, I am fascinated by my own reflection in them. But that’s about as much as I get out of the experience. It actually makes me less connected with and focussed on my conversational partner(s), because making and maintaining eye contact in a way that is not creepy takes a lot of work.

I don’t really try to make the ole’ EC with close friends and loved ones now. They seem to like me well enough as I am, and they’ve never complained about the fact that I tend to look anywhere but their faces, so I prefer to channel all of my energy into my shit and how much of it I genuinely give for them. But when I’m interacting with someone outside of that circle, and I know I’m going to have to go there, my brain splits in two: One part is the nervous pageant participant, so eager to smile, perform and please. The other part is the stage mom, lingering in the back of my brain, reminding me of all the steps:

You can’t just set your eyes on the other person and leave them there, because staring is creepy. And even if it’s not creepy, it can end up looking like a “blank stare” and that makes people think that you are dumb or not paying attention. So you have to look away sometimes, but don’t look down, because that implies that you’re lying. But sometimes looking to one side means that you’re lying and looking to the other side means that you’re recalling a memory, or maybe that was just some made up nonsense that I caught on an episode of CSI. Looking up is good, because that looks like you’re trying to recall something important. Also, some well-meaning souls have told me that looking at someone’s eyebrows can give the impression that you’re looking at their eyes, but the few times I’ve remembered to try this, it’s been just as complicated as the more authentic alternative and… oh god, you’re looking at their teeth again, aren’t you? Why do you always look at people’s teeth? Look at their eyes, for fuck’s sake! BUT NOT TOO MUCH!!!

And, somehow, I manage to listen to that voice in my head, obey it to fair extent, and still craft and engage in reciprocal conversation (which is a whole ‘nother monster). Some of the time. At any rate, my personal take on awkward seems to be leaning more toward cute or tolerable than off-putting and disquieting these days.

Now, my dear neurotypicals: I love you guys. I really and truly do. I mean, I’m willing to make eye contact for you. But I’d also love to see you try to pull that off.

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