Imagine this. You are in a foreign country. You don’t know the language let alone the social cues. You are unsure of what responses your nonverbal behaviors will create and things you thought were friendly this culture takes offense to. Being on the spectrum is like being in a foreign country every day. One of the reasons I don’t get frustrated when I travel internationally is because I am always doing detective work and guessing what nonverbal behaviors mean, even at home.
My mind is like a file fax of flashcards. For each nonverbal cue I have a mental flashcard on what it could mean in different scenarios. To me, it means nothing. So I have memorized what it could mean to other people. A smile means approachability for example. What does this mean for someone like me? Every single interaction I have during the day I constantly and quickly sift through my mental flashcards, pick the appropriate one based on the situation, and then apply the proper response. Problem is this is guess work and sometimes you guess incorrectly.
To me, a smile is a smile. How can I tell the difference between a friendly smile and a flirtatious smile? Well, the eyes. Want to know a secret? I hate eye contact because the eyes are too intense for me.
When I look into someone’s eyes I cannot simultaneously process. Everything happening with the eyes is far too intense and takes over all my energy. This is especially true with flirtatious eye contact. The more intense the eye contact, the more it makes me feel on edge. The only way to describe it is that it has the ability to send chills into me and make me feel fear. I can’t tell you why this is. Maybe for us, the peek into the soul from the eyes is too much to handle along with all of the external overload. It used to be that even simple eye contact made me feel this way. It evoked a flight response. Now I can manage everyday eye contact but I still very much shrink away from intense eye connection and expressions. Imagine a feeling for you that creates a flight response, whether it be public speaking or going to a medical procedure. That is the same level of intensity I feel with eye contact.
Because of this I cannot master knowing certain expressions when I see them. Because they are so intense I cannot look at them long enough to make a mental flashcard for every intricacy and then accurately place each expression as I see them.
So, instead I recommend sticking with basic nonverbal cues to memorize that don’t involve the eyes. Some things you can be correct most of the time even without that piece. Smiles mean approachability, crossed arms means do not approach me, being included in a circle of people means enter the conversation and so on.
As for making eye contact, I pretend I am presenting. So, I will make eye contact for a few seconds then look off to the side so I can finish processing, or look near the eyes but not into the eyes. I can hold direct eye contact looking into the eyes for a few moments but it quickly becomes too intense. Luckily, in the US eye contact is not as big as it used to be. Many people don’t hold eye contact for long periods of time anymore. Use that to your advantage.
Luckily, I have found that you can guess most situations without the eyes. However, guess work is still guessing so you have to be prepared to be wrong sometimes. In those cases, I try to either turn it into a lighthearted joke or I am honest and explain to the person that I did not realize what they were trying to communicate. Most are understanding. In the cases where they are not, it is not the type of person I care to expend energy on anyway.
Please leave in the comments what makes you feel uneasy and ways you have found to work around it. Probably not so different from our eye contact struggles!