Eye contact and shaking hands can be hard for Aspie / autistic people

Please accept my apologies for such frequent posting.  Truthfully, for every post I write, I’ve got at least 2-3 new ideas stacked up behind it.  I’m just trying to keep up with my brain! 🙂


I’m no expert on spectrum conditions, and I’m definitely not going to claim to speak for all Aspie/autistic people, but like most, I usually find making–and especially maintaining–eye contact extremely difficult.  The same applies to shaking hands.

I had often wondered why that is.

I’ve also “turned the tables” and wondered why the social norms of looking at someone in the eye or jerking their hand up and down are considered “normal” and “necessary”.

Personally, I’ve begun to realize that staring into someone else’s eyeballs feels incredibly unnerving.  To us, it feels unnatural and forced.  It exerts the same pressure, uneasiness, and self-consciousness, and poses the same distraction, as an allistic (non-Asperger’s/autistic) person might feel if they knew they were on stage or on camera, painfully aware that the whole world is looking at them.

It has been said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul”.  Well, I feel naked and vulnerable when I feel/know that someone is staring into my soul.  I feel uneasy about, and uncomfortable with, giving anyone else access to such deep levels of my core; I’ll keep that to myself, thank-you-very-much.

Because of the non-verbal communication and information provided by body language, (including facial expression, which also includes the eyes), I have a keen sense (unfounded or not) that the other person is getting more information from me (involuntary on my part) than I’m able to get from them.  It feels like the other person has an unfair advantage over me.  After all, they can get information from me that I can’t from them.  The playing field isn’t level; it’s lopsided.

Since I’ve sustained a few emotional injuries from being misunderstood and misinterpreted, I’m also afraid that my eyes will miscommunicate something I didn’t intend, and I don’t want to have to deal with the conflict or discord that often results from this misinterpretation.

Forcing myself to look into someone’s eyes also feels rude and intrusive, as though I’m staring at them, as though I’m invading their personal space.  It just feels impolite and invasive to me.  I don’t like feeling as though someone’s invading my boundaries, and I don’t like to feel as though I’m invading theirs.

I feel like I’m staring, and I was taught not to stare.  I also don’t like being stared at.  Staring leads to unfair judging, and I’ve been judged far too much already.

What confuses me (even more than attempting to penetrate someone’s soul) is, the “rest” of society thinks that if you’re not making eye contact, you’re somehow “hiding something” or being “less-than-fully-honest”.

I’d like to set the record straight on that one.  I can say without a shred of doubt that people on the spectrum are some of the most honest people I know (remember the “too blunt” accusation?), far moreso than the average allistic.  We’re typically pretty poor liars, and we tend to say what we’re really thinking, because we have little time for BS.

Essentially, one’s eye contact ability has less-than-squat to do with one’s level of honesty.  Aspie/autistic people are known for their straightforward speech, and yet we tend not to look people in the eye as much; the “rest” of society in general is known for its double-speak, and they tend to insist on this mythical “must” called eye contact.

I feel the similar anxiety about–and baffled disdain for–shaking hands when meeting someone for the first time.  I find the forced physical contact extremely intrusive, and it’s painful when the other person is committed to making a firm handshake.

The tight grip, however momentary, is also unnerving.  For a split second, it can be downright frightening.  What, are they trying to separate me from my hand?  I have to kick my higher thought processes into even higher gear to remind myself that the other person isn’t trying to abduct me.

Then, the internal questions flow forth: did s/he really have to actually reach across the invisible personal boundary and grab my hand?  Did s/he really have to grip that hard?  Don’t they realize there are pain-sensing nerve endings in the hands and fingers?  Why do they insist on touching me, anyway?  They just met me!  We don’t even know each other!  What the hell??  How did this become “a Thing”?

Then I began to realize that the excessive firmness of the handshake is an attempt to convince the other that one is self-confident.  Except that it can get out of hand and become almost a contest between the two hand-shakers (“my handshake is firmer than yours.  See?  I’m uber-comfortable with myself.  I’m the dominant party here.”

To me, this is nothing but pointless posturing.

I know that greeting someone by shaking hands is “expected”, but it’s never exactly Expected.  In fact, I secretly cringe when meeting people, and this is one of the reasons why.

And so it goes…just two more examples of societal “norms” and customs that, although I was born into this culture, I may never understand.

And (to be blunt, true to form) I almost don’t care if I never do.

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14 Comments

  1. Great post (as ever!). Useful to me too because since I taught myself to make eye contact in my teens I do actually feel slighted when somebody doesn’t meet my eye. I only need one second, with a smile, but without it I can feel quite rejected. I also reach for a handshake, because I figured it was necessary (not sure why, I think I had a reason at the time) – and again, it’s so rare to get the exact firm, friendly handshake that I expect in return that I often recoil anyway. The sensation of the type of handshake lingers for maybe ten minutes afterwards. It can either make me feel good, and confident in that person’s presence or unnerved. I guess I’m putting unnecessary pressure on both myself and other people!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I concur with @amyes87, that you needn’t -ever- apologise for BEING. And I’ll put in a different sentence, “for being who you are”. Because basically, we are who we are, and not what we have chosen to be.
    Now having said that, I should clarify that I actually stopped hating myself AFTER I realised that I am on the autistic spectrum.
    But now I am at unease about my whole life up to that moment, for being:
    -used
    -abused
    -lied unto
    -mocked
    -bullied
    -victimised
    -marginalised
    -isolated
    -beaten
    -cheated
    -sacked
    -etc, etc, etc…
    And all the above plus more, even more vicious, only because I am:
    -honest
    -respectful
    -abiding by rules and laws
    -punctual
    -detailed
    -sincere
    -shy
    -etc, etc, etc…
    Oh, I am far, far away from being “holier than thou”, but why would anyone hate someone who doesn’t just like order, but actually loves it?
    So why am I supposed to force myself looking into people’s eyes? Just to remember that nearly every pair of eyes that abused me, looked rather friendly at that time?
    Yes, I can be called rude for looking at someone when angry and confused, but you know, it’s me looking, not some deceiver posing as the opposite of what they feel…
    I have come to learn, little by little, that some people I know well, about whom I thought they are rude for not returning my socially expected “Hi, how’s it going?”, are actually on the spectrum too, but have learned to be themselves, which means a smile in return, is their way of socialising. And how perfect and absolutely sufficient is that!
    It is actually liberating to act according to the “silent waves” of my own soul, as you so beautifully expressed it.
    In the end, it is to the reaction of my own image in the mirror I should be accountable to, and no one else’s…
    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Liberty of Thinking (I *love* the name, btw)! I’m so sorry for what you went through. I feel you; what you said resonates with me, and I’d like to let you know you’re not alone. ❤ When I found out about my Aspie-ness I started to go through a healing process of sorts (I'll probably write a dedicated post on that topic! lol) and I found myself nodding in agreement with your list, too. I found the healing process very helpful, although it's not quite finished yet. It's my hope that every one of us has people we can look to for support, whether those people are in close physical proximity, group, counselors, books (on anything positive), or maybe even in an online forum, or other site/group. I admire your strength and I thank you again. My door is open, and it's a completely-safe zone. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much SW for being “cheesy”. I tend to be cheesy when honest, because as for yourself and all of us, honesty is a feeling, a good feeling, an emotional stage of satisfaction for being just ourselves.
    And thank you for allowing me to spread my new wings a bit, you know, before getting used to fly…
    It’s actually just today that I started to use “us” when talking about my sense of knowing where I always felt I belong, and it just feels “cheesy” great 🙂
    BTW, you have a real talent with words, a special way of merging your own self into matters important to others, with which WE can identify, and therefore learn from. I’ve been writing since being around 10 yo, but in spite of my very flowing replies, I struggle writing non-poetry. I actually started writing at that age, because we were asked to write a narative, but instead I wrote a lengthy poem in proper rhythm and rhyme. Narative means for me complicated academic essays, and replies to what others write, which if I don’t control myself become more essays…
    As you’ve noticed, my site quite reflects that, so I just created a new one (under construction :-))
    which I will dedicate much more to our Aspie world(s).
    And now I’ll go re-blogging…
    Moshe

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow…speechless :). Word-language is so inadequate to describe the joy and solidarity I felt reading your comment :). Yes, you have beautiful wings; they’re visible already. Fly and fly ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, from the heart…
    As I’m writing I am listening to some epic film music collection, “Dances with wolves” now…
    It’s just epic…
    Oh, I just re-blogged the first from your posts. And just so you know, even though I hinted here and there about my newly found life, this was my actual “coming out” in my blog, so without trying to be cheesy, Thank You!

    Liked by 1 person

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