“Proper” eye contact is one of the most significant and sensitive aspects of interpersonal communication in western cultures. Next to the ability to carry on a fluid social conversation, eye contact with the speaker is one of the crucial elements required for the perception of social “normalcy.” Too much contact makes a person appear overly intense, too intimate, or possibly intrusive. Too little makes one appear shifty, untruthful, or like he is hiding something. Not making eye contact is considered very rude and antisocial.
Eye contact in early infancy is a significant bonding event for mothers and infants. Failure to make eye contact in infancy is a very troubling observation for parents who often become alarmed. The lack of eye contact is one of the most frequently described observations in young children who eventually receive an autism diagnosis. At a superficial level, some professionals use the lack of eye contact as a primary diagnostic trait for autism. This trait can vary from an occasional lack of connection to total avoidance of eye contact. The former is especially true for girls who exhibit much less eye avoidance than boys.
Many people have invested years in attempting to explain the lack-of-eye-contact trait of autism. The resulting theories have invoked concepts like inability or complete indifference to understanding what another person thinks or feels. Others have suggested that no eye contact in autistic individuals is simple passive social and interpersonal insensitivity to others around them. However, recent neuroscience research has begun to reveal some underlying differences in brain activity that can likely explain the basis of avoiding eye contact. These differences were first observed in animal models and have now been confirmed in autistic people.
Mutual eye contact in animals is the most straightforward and direct method of projecting a threat. It is a familiar dictum among wildlife biologists to never look into a large cat’s eyes because you are issuing a threat if you do. It is easy to observe two dogs who are about to fight, staring at each other. They fight, or one eventually signals submission and retreat by looking away from the other. Try looking directly at your dog in the eye; it won’t last but a second because you are signaling a threat, and it is avoided. Among people, direct eye contact in the first instant sends a signal of intent from the other person. In the same instant of eye contact, the brain involuntarily determines if there is any threat. The amygdala part of the brain controls the response — the exact part that also controls fear and the reflex response of flight or fight. This response likely dominates mutual eye contact in autistic infants. The rational understanding of a mother’s intent is subordinated by irrational fear. It creates avoidance of eye contact because of an enlarged hyperactive amygdala.
Failure to make eye contact in autistic individuals has much the same explanation as it has in animals; looking at someone who is staring back sends a threat, generating fear in the autistic person. There is no rational understanding that mutual eye contact can be a form of concern, warmth, or affection. The eye contact avoidance is irrational. If a young infant is overloaded with sensory stimulation, the resulting anxiety drastically amplifies the threat from someone looking at them in the eye. If concern, warmth, and affection are showered on the infant, the hypersensitivities will likely prevent communicating positive intentions through eye contact.
So why is an autistic person so threatened or afraid when they look someone in the eye? The answer on a primitive level is likely that eye contact is scary and does carry a threat element of the unknown. In the infant, it likely generates unwarranted threats and fears. On a more rational level, eye contact is very intense and can transfer too much information, overwhelming the autistic receiver. Couple this emotional response to sensory hypersensitivities and eye contact can be too much to handle.