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Inability to Make Eye Contact: Autism or Social Anxiety?

My husband and I had a hilarious conversation this week where he asked me (mostly joking), “Do I have Autism?”

I say that he was mostly joking because a little piece of him was seriously wondering if his social anxiety “symptoms” meant that he was Autistic. They don’t, but a lot of the signs overlap so it was a valid question.

My husband and oldest daughter both have social anxiety, and, for the most part, their anxieties manifest in similar ways.

For both of them, eye contact is painfully uncomfortable with people they don’t know and terribly distracting with people they do know. I mentioned to my husband that I’d recently read the statement, “Children with Autism can either give you their eye contact or they can give you their attention, but they can’t do both.”

He nodded his head emphatically and said, “Yes! That’s me!”

To which I responded, “But you’re giving me your eye contact right now.”

He said, “I am, and it’s not uncomfortable because you’re my wife, but you don’t have my full attention.”

So much of his mental energy was focusing on not looking away from me, in order to be respectful in our conversation, that he didn’t have much mental energy left to really hear what I was saying.

And I realized in that moment why my husband says, “Huh?” four hundred times a day, even though he’s looking right at me. Or why he doesn’t remember me telling him about plans we’ve made, even though he said “okay” after I told him.

My seven-year-old daughter is the same way. A few months ago, I realized that I’ve never seen her make eye contact with anyone unless they made her.

When she’s talking to her best friends (she has two and they’re both boys), she looks at their shoulder or their hands. When she’s talking to me, she looks at me in the eyes (because I’ve taught her that it’s respectful), but it’s as if she’s looking through me. She rarely hears what I’m saying on the first go-around.

And when unfamiliar adults attempt to have a conversation with her, it’s as if she turns inward and literally cannot look at their eyes.

One of the sweetest moments I’ve ever seen her have was a couple weeks ago at church. Her bible study leader knows that she’s “shy” and so she never forces my girl to make eye contact with her. This particular night, she sat next to her for probably fifteen whole minutes on the floor and asked her about all the things she loved.

She never made Emery look at her, and she never disengaged the conversation because of awkwardness or lack of eye contact. It was so sweet for me to watch, and my girl talked about it the entire ride home.

Rewind to several months ago when I first noticed that my daughter couldn’t make eye contact, Autism was the first thought that crossed my mind. Her biological cousin has it, and she really does show a lot of the markers for it.

She’s socially awkward, she’s intelligent enough that she was tested for gifted, she has fixated interests (I know everything about horses now), and she’s emotionally anxious. However, after sifting through more information and thinking about the kids who I know personally that have Autism, I decided the signs don’t really match up.

Here are the things I noticed to be different about my child (who is very socially anxious) versus the children I know who are Autistic:

– My daughter is socially unconventional because she is afraid of people disliking her. She isn’t unconventional because she doesn’t understand the rules of her little societies. She understands them, but they make her uncomfortable so she stays hidden in the background.

– My kiddo feels “bad” (her words) when making eye contact, but it causes an emotional reaction in her, not one of confusion. She feels awkward, like she’s being too personal with people, when she looks at them, versus a child who has Autism, who probably feels more confusion and distraction than fear.

– My daughter WILL NOT speak to a stranger and often won’t even speak to people who are less close than family. However, again, it’s not an inability or a misunderstanding. It’s a strong discomfort.

– My daughter is friends with only boys, every year, no matter which school she goes to, which has been noted as a sign of Autism in girls. While the research on that is limited, I’ve read it many times. I’m completely going on a hunch, but I think that Autistic girls probably gravitate toward boys because they’re less socially mature than their female counterparts. Their immaturity causes them to play with less restriction and less fear of judgement, which attracts the girls with Autism, who don’t play according to unspoken “rules.” My daughter, who is socially anxious, chooses to play with boys because they never, ever judge the way that she plays. She is fine with playing by rules, so long as no one teases her about which color she likes or which horse she chooses out of the bucket. Once they judge her, she’s out. And if you’ve ever met a group of little girls, they can be brutal in the judgement department.

The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from this is that, although the signs of Social Anxiety and Autism are similar, they are different fundamentally because of the WHY’S behind their behavior. Where one child might misunderstand social situations, the other feels uncomfortable by social situations.

One is more logical. One is more emotional.

This isn’t a cold, hard fact, and it isn’t meant to place anyone in a box that says they CAN’T be emotional or CAN’T be logical… but it is the explanation I think I’ve finally put my finger on after months of rolling it over in my mind! Hopefully it will help others who might’ve been wondering the same thing.

Happy parenting, friends.

Inability to Make Eye Contact: Autism or Social Anxiety?


W. R. Cummings


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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). Inability to Make Eye Contact: Autism or Social Anxiety?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 14, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/foster-care/2019/02/inability-to-make-eye-contact-autism-or-social-anxiety/

 

Last updated: 22 Feb 2019
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