By Lance McLemore, PRC-Saltillo Blogger
I am a person on the autism spectrum. One thing that I’ve thought about and heard other people talking about is the issue of eye contact. Most people will be aware that many people with autism have trouble making eye contact myself included. I know many autistic adults who talk about being forced to make eye contact when they were children. This is something that has always seemed quite strange to me. Why does it matter so much if someone makes eye contact?
This has gotten me thinking about expectations of conformity of disabled people in general. It seems that I am by nature a polemic. I am deeply and inherently distrustful of unquestioning obedience to any dogma or custom. I think everyone would be greatly benefitted by a healthy dose of skepticism. If the reader has read my previous posts, they might think that I have the temperament of a grouchy octogenarian. They’re probably correct, but some things need to be said, especially those things that most people have never considered.
I would like to go back to my example of eye contact. I’m going to be generous and assume that parents and teachers try to force eye contact with the best of intentions. I know they want autistic children to grow up and be able to fit in. However, every decision one makes comes with a price. What is the cost of this forced eye contact? I can say from personal experience that it causes great discomfort. Some autistic people say that it causes physical pain. To the best of my recollection, I heard Temple Grandin say that she can either look at someone or listen to them but not both. It seems that this forced eye contact can cause discomfort, anxiety, physical pain, and maybe problems with sensory integration. What do we have to gain from all this? What is the purpose of it? As I see it, we are encouraged or coerced into doing this so that we superficially appear to be normal and don’t make the average person uncomfortable. The price to people like me is very steep: pain, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, mental and physical fatigue, etc. As I see it, we gain little or nothing from it—not enough to justify the cost. I don’t believe that it makes much difference in our being more socially accepted. Even if I could make eye contact normally, people would still know that I wasn’t like them. I would be doing it to please other people; it does little or nothing for me.
I am very well aware that I was born into a world that was not designed for me. I know that despite my differences, I have to do my best to adapt to the world as it is. However, there’s only so much I can do. What is so awful about being different? Why is everyone so afraid of it? I often hear people spouting off platitudes about diversity and inclusion. I’m not going to deny that the state of disabled people is better now than in the past. However, deep down human beings are tribal. We tend to feel most comfortable around other people like ourselves. Different is scary and dangerous. It seems that the answer that many people come up with is to make a disabled person as superficially normal as possible. I have noticed a pattern in human beings. When people come across someone or something that they don’t understand, they might try to understand it. If they can’t understand it, then they try to control it. If they can’t control it, then they try to destroy it. It’s possible to make a round peg fit into a square hole, but you have to destroy the peg in order to do that. And what do you lose in the process? Nobody ever thinks about the cost.
All the effort to make a disabled person appear normal is nothing more than a thin veneer and often an imperfect one. It doesn’t actually change anything. All it does is let us know that we are not valued and accepted as we are, and that there is no room for us. I’m sure that many would argue that everyone is required to mask parts of themselves to fit in, so why shouldn’t we? First of all, I’m not convinced that such a practice is good for anyone. It tends to stifle creativity and innovation and cause other problems. What about those of us who cannot fit in or those of us who can fit in but at a very great personal cost?
I suppose I’m writing all this to inspire people to ask themselves certain questions. When I encourage a disabled person to mask their disability, why am I really doing that? Am I trying to help them? Am I doing it to ease my own discomfort? What is the disabled person gaining, and what are they losing? Is the cost greater than the potential benefit?
Communicators In Action - autism, eye contact, conformity, disability, fatigue, normal