Today I heard a professional I respect praising a young person for improved eye contact. I was quite taken aback as it isn’t something I have ever felt we should be insisting upon. Being as she is quite an enlightened person, it occurs to me that many people do not know what I know about eye contact so I thought I’d share.
Eye contact can be physically painful! Yes it can! I know this because whilst I can maintain eye contact for a short time, I cannot maintain it for long enough to conduct a meeting for example. If I try, my eyes will close against my will. I will try, but the effort is painful and I will eventually fail.
It’s hard to explain why that is but I’ll try. If I’m looking at your eyes, I’m really looking. I can see the array of colours, the pupil dilation, the reflections in your pupils, the whites of your eyes, the red blood vessels, and if you’re wearing them, the outline of your contact lenses. I see your eyelashes as they go from dark at the base, to lighter and thinner at the ends. I see the details of your make up or your wrinkles. I think I also see deeper into your eyes, so I make judgements about whether you’re interested in what I’m saying, whether you like or respect me, and I decide whether I like and trust you.
That’s intense isn’t it? That’s tough to maintain isn’t it? My eyes blur and water from trying. I find myself trying to force it – and it hurts.
If I remember in time, I can ‘fake’ eye contact. This can be by focussing on eyebrows, glasses frames or make up – or anything like that. This prevents the fatigue that comes from actually making eye contact and is very effective. But I have to think about the strategy. It doesn’t come naturally and I’m often in trouble before it occurs to me.
So if a child finds eye contact as intense and painful as I do, is it any wonder they avoid it? Does a person with this difficulty ever consider why they avoid it? Do family and professionals ever consider why the person avoids it?
Probably not. I hadn’t until I heard the comment that inspired this blog.
Is it right for society to insist on eye contact?
Well, it’s a socially expected thing to do. Eye contact is supposed to mean something, and for some of us, it means too much – so we avoid it. It is considered to be a way of communicating that a person is listening, but for some of us, it’s impossible to look and listen at the same time. It can cause a sensory overload.
I would say that eye contact is a socially constructed norm, rather than something that is necessary to communicate. I understand that society is so entrenched in what it thinks is acceptable and normal that it probably hasn’t even considered that its insistence on eye contact might cause pain or discomfort – as well as actually inhibiting the persons ability to pay attention to what you’re saying.
Being as I said eye contact is not something I insist upon, what do I do instead?
As a parent and a teacher, I ask for verbal confirmation that I have been heard and understood. I might ask a child to look in my direction so I know they’re not distracted. Mostly I know I have my children’s attention because they are talking with me – rather than me talking at them.
I’ve taught my students to make notes, this means I can just check that they’re on task from what they are putting down on the page. The use of visual displays such as PowerPoint, video and white board writing means they have something to look at that engages them without ever needing to make eye contact. We also have sufficient dialogue in class that I know I have their attention because they are talking with me.
I have never considered it before, but I realise now that my own difficulties with eye contact mean I have removed that barrier to communication from my home, and my classroom without even thinking about it.
I don’t believe eye contact is necessary for communication, but society expects it. Maybe it’s helpful to teach a cheat method to help your child fit in? But please don’t force eye contact under the assumption that you’re helping the child. You might be unwittingly inflicting discomfort and pain. Your child avoids eye contact for a reason.
Jannine Harris PGCE MA
ADHD Wise UK