I had an insightful twitter conversation with an allistic (non-autistic) person recently (@noidd on twitter) and I think sharing this conversation about social interactions between allistic and autistic people will help us understand each other a bit better.
I used the term “social skills” in the title, but what I really mean is understanding non-autistic subconscious social processing.
Please note that this is one conversation about social interactions between an autistic person and a non-autistic person and does not apply to every non-autistic person or every autistic person, but it may give a bit of insight into how allistic people and autistic people generally think during social interactions. It is important to note that Noidd is specifically answering my question about how his subconscious social processing works, so most of what he is writing about is not conscious thought, but the subconscious way his brain works during social interaction. He’s very kindly allowed me to publish this exchange.
Why is Eye Contact Needed?
He replied to a thread where I talked about how non-autistic people forcing eye contact with me is overwhelming and painful. The conversation which ensued is below:
Noidd: Biggest surprise for me is that receiving eye-contact is (maybe I’m over-reading, please me correct if wrong) distressing as opposed to giving eye-contact (ie, that the discomfort is bidirectional). I’d love to understand more.
Me: If anything, eye contact is more painful when non-autistic people force me to look at them by maneuvering their head and/or eyes because it’s not a choice I’m making as the autistic person. There are physiological reasons why eye contact can be overwhelming and even painful to autistic people, like increased amygdala activity, regardless of whether the other person is making it or the autistic person is.
Do you mind if I ask why you attempt to make eye contact with people who aren’t making eye contact with you, or people who are looking away?
Noidd: Primary conscious reasons: 0. The eyes are where the “person” lives. There’s a lot of non-verbal communication in the face and the eyes are the natural place to “rest”. (When I’m looking at people’s eyes during conversation, it’s ‘soft focus’, I’m reading the whole face). I can tell immediately by looking at someone’s eyes / face whether they’re paying attention and we’re having a two-way conversation. Spoken English is *horrible* when it comes to communicating whether communication is two-way or not. Spoken English is about taking turns.
My Reflections: Right away, @noidd says that making eye contact with the other person is not conscious. And right away, he says that he can “tell immediately” whether someone’s paying attention. Again, this is likely part of the subconscious processing going on rather than a conscious assumption on his part.
Me: Question: when you say ‘I can tell immediately by looking at someone’s eyes / face whether they’re paying attention and we’re having a two-way conversation.’ Does that include autistic people? (like, if you didn’t know they were autistic and they looked away)
Noidd: Truthfully, until your thread today I would have just kept looking, completely oblivious that eye-contact was causing distress. If they were averting their gaze towards a their phone I would take that as a visual cue that they had no interest in holding a conversation, ever.
If they were averting their gaze and looked uncomfortable I would likely disengage politely, realizing that the conversation was causing distress but not having any real idea what the actual cause was.
Felix Murphy: For autistic people, we are usually the most focused when we aren’t looking directly at the person we are talking to. The struggle is convincing allistics that we are engaged, which usually takes so much energy, that actually following the conversation becomes hard.
Noidd: I never ever would have considered that to be the case, thank you. These are the types of differences in communication that I think benefits non-autistics to understand. I’m rabidly opposed to the idea that 100% of clarity of communication falls on the autistic-side to comply.
When asked more about why eye contact is important:
Noidd: The eyes and face are really where I get my cues as to when the conversation switches from one person speaking to the other. I legit find it difficult to hold a conversation without these visual cues and I worry about stepping on someone while they’re talking which is a faux pas.
Me: The thing I don’t understand is that, we’re holding a conversation right now.. so how is it any different? Is it just like automatic to try to make eye contact with people you interact with?
Noidd: This conversation is asynchronous. We can be typing at the same time, deviate a little from the ordering of the conversation and we can both track where we are. That’s how this type of communication is. Speech is 100% synchronous as we can’t talk at the same time.
Me: This is really interesting to me because personally, speech doesn’t feel “synchronous” at all. It feels like I never know when I’m going to accidentally interrupt someone without realizing it, or when people are going to interpret my “tone” negatively when I’m just saying facts. Most of the time, especially with strangers, I “fall back” during synchronous in-person conversations because I am so worried about “stepping on toes” just like what you were talking about earlier.
Because I know people are receiving those eye signals & getting bad vibes & there’s nothing I can do about it, because they’re not going to say to me ‘Look, your eyes have been staring at a spot on the floor so I feel like you’re not listening to me.’ They’re just going to give me facial expressions/eye signals I guess that I’m supposed to pick up on? But I can’t pick up on them because.. I’m not making eye contact and eye contact is overwhelming and even if I do, all I see is pupil size and movement, not ‘social meaning.’
Noidd: Two NT English Speaking strangers can on a first meeting hold a conversation without talking over each other or having any uncomfortable gaps in the conversation. There are visual / audible cues that communicate when they are expecting to switch speaker/listener.
I switched non-autistic to NT as non-autistics w/ADHD (like myself) will interrupt. 95% of the time we have predicted what the other person will say and have already pre-planned our response and when that break will be. When we’re wrong, we interrupt.
Later, Noidd talks about eye contact and training for autistic people: I’m really uncomfortable with people “training” autistics to make eye contact. It’s a bad idea. It’s counter-productive and arguably actively harmful.
Me: I agree!
Where Do Allistics Actually Look During In-Person Interactions?
Noidd: Eye-contact is out of band communication negotiation. Speech without 2-way eye is hard for me.
Me: Are you saying you’re picking up social signals from eye contact, and giving social signals with eye contact/facial expressions? And without that interpreting words are hard?
Noidd: The eyes are really just a ‘natural resting point’ and we read the whole face and upper body. I’m not staring at the eyes, I’m actually positioning my attention just above the bridge of the nose. Here I think is why: If someone looks at my face off-center, is there food on my face? Someone looking at my lips is a visual cue seeking permission to kiss someone (and they’re supposed to visually reply signal yes/no). If it isn’t said, no sleights. (Yes, we all know it’s ridiculous).
Looking above my eyeline feels like they’re looking above me. Looking at my nose makes me self-conscious about my nasal hygiene. The point between the eyes is feels “neutral” because I think that’s where we think the person ‘is’. Just realized, I focus on Dalek eyestalks too.
Where I look is 100% subconscious. I never think about it.
Making Meaning Out of Social Signals
Me: I’m not sure autistic people are ever not taking in additional information to be honest.
Noidd: When people say autistics don’t pick up on visual cues I assumed (poorly maybe) that they don’t see the cues. (Now I say that out loud that doesn’t make sense). I mean, you’d be able to see that someone you were talking to was looking around the room, looking at their drink, shifting their weight, trying to bring other people into a conversation… So, I guess my real question is this:
Is it that maybe there’s too much information and that identifying those cues which are socially significant is harder because of the signal/noise ratio? Is it that the cues don’t subconsciously map without conscious thought (which would be *exhausting*)? What’s the mechanism?
It makes me wonder if not looking at me makes it easier to pay attention because there’s less information coming in so the signal/noise ratio is easier to work with? But I really, truly, and honestly have no clue because we seem to experience and process the world in such different ways.
Me: “Is it that the cues don’t subconsciously map without conscious thought (which would be *exhausting*)?” Personally I think it is exactly this. We can tell someone’s looking around, but they could be looking around for any number of reasons!
Someone could be looking for a pen they just put down on their desk, or they have auditory sensitivity and they’re looking away to hear them better because filtering is hard (that is what I do), or they’re seeing a glare somewhere and want to figure out where it’s coming from (also me).
I’m not trying to be insulting or anything like that, it’s just honestly baffling to me that someone could subconsciously take in body language and immediately assume/”know” there must only be one answer or reason. It’s no wonder NTs misinterpret us to be honest.
If I meet someone new, especially if they’re not autistic (or I don’t know their neurotype), I’m not going to assume that where they look or what their hands are doing immediately means some social intention. I’m completely aware of what people are doing, I just don’t assume meaning.
Now when I know someone well (like family or a close friend), I’m more likely to be able to make conclusions based on where they’re looking. For example, when I had 10 conversations with one person and they looked at my face constantly each time, then if they’re not looking at my face the 11th time, I might be more likely to think they’re bored or aren’t listening to me.
Noidd: I think that was a huge turning point for me yesterday. Realizing that it wasn’t that you don’t see it, it’s that you’re seeing more and processing more so the signal/noise is so much worse.
Me: I mean, for auditory processing, yes, but for other stuff, we still see everything, we just don’t put social intention/goals on those actions. The listening and looking away is an integration overwhelm issue – that’s why I look at the floor, because it’s still, it doesn’t move, so I don’t have to process more information. But in terms of not getting meaning out of allistic body language etc., I still see it, I just don’t think it means a specific thing.
Noidd: I wonder if that’s because you’ve seen all the possibilities every time so you don’t cache/shortcut.
Me: It could be, but it could also be because I know personally that I could do the “same” body language in different situations and it would mean different things – so there’s never one “correct” meaning with gestures/eye contact/etc. for me. It may even depend on how overwhelmed I am that day, for example.
Noidd: That makes a lot of sense.
Me: But in the same way, it means it’s a lot harder to interpret spontaneous interactions on the fly and know what they mean easily without a lot of energy.
Autistic-Autistic Social Interaction
Galaxy: I am Autistic and I can usually tell if an Autistic person is paying attention even if they are not looking at me. You can often tell if you know how, instead of relying on allistic communication patterns.
Noidd: How can you tell? Are there autistic <-> autistic patterns that are common?
Galaxy: I don’t know. I’ve broken down allistic social patterns because they didn’t try to understand me so I had to. But I’ve never been asked to describe this. It’s a vibe, a feeling that just makes sense. Probably how you feel towards allistic people. You just know and it feels right.
It feels like a vibe. Like their energy is reacting to my words. If they’re not talking in response, it’s like sign language with their whole body. Even if they aren’t moving much. It’s the change between their baseline and when I talk, but it’s not allistic signs.
The delta from baseline or normal listening patterns aren’t set rules though. Sometimes it’s their eyes and where they focus. Or if they are more still or moving more. If they do the task they’re doing at a different speed, or if they don’t change speed at all. It depends.
I’m not explaining this well, none of the examples are set rules but they are actual examples of how I know my autistic friends are listening. “Vibing” is the closest thing that seems to align.
Noidd: That’s 100% the same in my view as non-autistic… except people have tried to codify what non-autistic “vibing” is meant to look like and then enforce / assign intent to them. Food for thought, thank you for this.
Here are some things I think both of us learned from this interesting conversation –
Some allistic people:
- Assume others have the same social cues, body language, and intent that they do during social interaction and are interpreting it the same way
- Subconsciously are very confident in their assessments of others’ body language/facial expression/tone of voice
- Subconsciously read between the lines even if there aren’t any
- Subconsciously consider social cues (where people look, how they sound, how they move) asjust as, or sometimes more important than the actual words being said by them
- Subconsciously assume how other people take in information (assume they know when someone else is making eye contact with them even though research shows this is not true).
- Assume other people are “reading” their social cues in the correct way and/or should be doing so, so there is no need to make this information explicit.
- Get overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated when the words someone says does not “match” their body language/tone of voice/facial expressions
- Are uneasy when texting or call someone on the phone because they cannot see the person’s facial expressions or body language and adjust their conversation based on these signals.
Some autistic people:
- May have subconscious social processing with other autistic people, but this is less known about because most of us interact with non-autistic people most of the time.
- Focus on actual words (as if you’re writing a text or email) more than tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions
- Look away from others to concentrate on their words
- Do not obtain meaning from allistic body language or where allistic people look, or at least do not jump to conclusions as quickly solely based on this information
- Experience overwhelm and pain with eye contact and prefer that other people not try to “look” at their face or eyes if they are intentionally looking away
- Can’t think of what to say, or can’t understand what the other person is saying when making eye contact with them – it is easy to completely blank out on words or become overwhelmed or in pain
I hope reading this has helped you clear up a few things or reflect on them, whether you are autistic or non-autistic. The people we interact with in the world may be vastly different from ourselves, down to our nervous systems to why we look away or how we convey a message. Personally, my advice is to never assume that the other person is going to work the same way as you, and to help meet us halfway when communicating with us.
Thank you to everyone who let me quote them for this piece!