Planting sweet peas in my backyard recently I tried to remember how the occurrence of flower shades had led Mendel to explain the genetics of eye colour. Although I couldn’t recall the details, I had retained the basics from school biology. What I couldn’t remember, I realised, was the colour of Dylan’s father’s eyes – that detail I had airbrushed from my memory. But not brown, I assume, like mine: I must carry a recessive gene for sea-coloured eyes as Dylan’s are gooseberry-gray.
I love Dylan’s eyes: in some lights they are green and in others gray. There is no agreement about them. When Dylan was at school he would sometimes bring home worksheets describing pupils in his class: names, hair and eye colour. Each of Dylan’s teachers, it seemed, had a different view of Dylan’s eyes: one year his worksheet said blue; another teacher wrote ‘green'; yet another thought them gray. Sometimes it isn’t easy to tell what colour Dylan’s eyes are not because of the light but because, like many autistic people, he won’t let you look.
I watched Madonna being interviewed on The Jonathan Ross Show recently – or rather I listened as background to whatever else I was doing at the time. Ross is a skilful interviewer; he establishes connections with guests which make them feel safe and inclined to be open. As a result his interviews can drift like private conversations with neither party entirely in control of where they might end. When he interviewed Madonna, however, I found myself looking up at the screen increasingly often, puzzled by the flow of the conversation.
The interaction was not as fluid as usual. Ross seemed to be struggling to find a way in or make a connection; he couldn’t lure, tempt or tease his guest. And then it struck me; Madonna was refusing eye contact. Keeping her eyelids lowered while she listened and spoke – raising them only briefly to acknowledge a question or to signal she had no more to say – Madonna sidestepped or declined Ross’ attempts to connect. Her behaviour didn’t strike me as overtly sexual; she wasn’t avoiding eye contact to project herself as demure or to smoulder (à la Bacall). Rather it seemed self-protective; Madonna didn’t want to be vulnerable through the eyes.
For ten years I watched one of my university tutors keep his eyes lowered. A brilliant historian and Bentham scholar, as well as teaching the political ideas strand of my undergraduate course John was my academic tutor. In that capacity we had regular contact and when I became a PhD student at the same college we maintained the relationship although he wasn’t my supervisor. This man was good to me; it is him I have to thank for a scholarship to the USA and other awards. As well as a mentor he was a father-figure and friend to me; he hired me as a babysitter, invited me to lunches at his lovely home and gave me the dressing downs I needed when I went off the rails.
In all these years I saw his eyes only a handful of times. He kept them firmly to the ground; usually fixed at a point just beyond my left shoulder. Sometimes, in the early days, I would glance behind me to see what it was he was looking at. Later I realised that this was simply how he lived. Before I understood, I would delight in trying to get him to look at me. With all the wild confidence of twenty I tried every trick I knew to make him lift his eyes to mine. I managed this only a handful of times. As I remember them his eyes were pale blue (and, I now realise, anxious).
A man I loved, a history man (let’s say a surrogate dad)
put his long noble legs, scholarly elsewhere-head,
into the ordinary mechanism of his undistinctive car
and drove to where no one would know. The car park
of The Runnymede Hotel is unremarkable but for this:
a meadow border with the Thames, the weir
and grit. The 200 yards of sting and cut it took
to walk, barefoot, to the water’s edge.
The memory of that kind and clever man has stayed with me. That he averted his gaze is not the only thing I remember about him, of course, but it is one of the things I have thought about while parenting a child who also avoids eye contact. I don’t mean to suggest more than a fragile link between Dylan and this man; at first glance they have little in common. I find it helpful, however, to think about what connects people rather than to think about difference; if I consider the reasons why other people habitually avoid eye contact, perhaps this will help me to understand Dylan.
We all avert our eyes sometimes of course. Often it is to conform to social rules – not making eye contact on the underground or in public toilets for example. Children and adults with an Autistic Spectrum Condition are usually not aware of such protocol; Dylan sometimes stares in ways considered socially inappropriate just as he ‘inappropriately’ withholds eye contact. As his gaze is never (or rarely) a result of social convention, rule-governed eye contact cannot tell me much about Dylan’s experience; it is voluntary gaze-avoidance which interests me.
Some of us avoid eye contact when we aren’t telling the truth or are bored or disagree. Students sometimes look away from me so that I won’t ask them a question. I avert my eyes in impatience. My tutor, I told myself as a student, was probably shy. Recently, as Dylan’s behaviour has become more ‘challenging’, I have paid attention to the things which provoke anxiety. Even if I cannot identify a trigger, quite often I can gauge how anxious Dylan is through his eyes. It was when I realised this that I remembered John; on the handful of times he looked me in the eye, this is what I would have seen had I understood what I was looking at.
Though he does sometimes look at me when I speak to him, more often Dylan looks over my shoulder at a place not dissimilar to the point at which John would fix his eyes. When he was very young Dylan rarely if ever made eye contact. It took me a while to realise that this did not mean Dylan didn’t notice things. On the contrary, he commits every detail of a situation to memory within minutes of entering a space; with a fleeting glance Dylan mentally ‘photographs’ an environment, noting each object and the relationship of objects to each other.
The speed and accuracy of Dylan’s observations is impressive; that he makes them while appearing not to look is extraordinary. As this seems to be a fairly common skill among autistic children and adults it is fair to assume that levels of eye contact are not linked to levels of observation. An artist friend once reminded me that we see with our brains, not with our eyes; Dylan’s brain is working so well in this respect he doesn’t need to look at something for long to understand it.
As Dylan’s observational powers are so good I dismissed the possibility that they might be linked to his lack of eye contact. If something is working smoothly it is easy not to consider that it might also be part of a conundrum. Recently, however, there have been suggestions that autistic people may avoid eye contact precisely because of their observational powers. There is speculation (based on accounts from autistic people) that sustained eye contact is avoided because of the ability to see in so much detail. It is possible, perhaps, that autistic brains ‘over-see'; the sheer quantity of visual information bombarding the person is physically painful.
I don’t think it is about quantity of information alone; I suspect that for Dylan it is also about what he sees. I sometimes watch Dylan flinch or look away from my eyes after holding their gaze momentarily and I find myself wondering what it is he has seen. Is it my sadness? Did I give away, in my eyes, that I worry about his future? Or that sometimes I am scared? I think Dylan sees these things. Sometimes I think of this as his heightened empathy – a connection with me he has forged in the absence of language.
I find this surprising but plausible. Dylan appears to have a photographic gaze; if you combine this recording of visual information with an ability to ‘feel’, the potential for emotional overload is enormous. While we readily acknowledge that to be exposed is to be made vulnerable, we rarely consider the vulnerabilities of the person to whom information is revealed. Looking away can, perhaps, be a form of protection from seeing too much as well as from too much being seen (as in the case of Madonna). If eyes are the windows of the soul, imagine how it might feel to look through them.
Dylan has always loved owls and my mum used to look out for any that might catch his eye. When he was around nine she bought him a set like Matryoshka dollies – one inside another and another and another, becoming smaller and smaller. This particular gift would get its eyes caught by Dylan however; within an hour he had systematically scratched them out. We could think of no reason why. Since then I’ve watched Dylan adopt other strategies with eyes that trouble him: a photograph of a friend he insists must be turned from view (‘eyes’ he says to me, pointing at them); a book of piano music with Beethoven on the cover which I continually find turned to face the stand. Some eyes, it seems, are too painful to contemplate.
Sometimes we encounter something which transforms the way we think. After years of being told to demand eye contact when interacting with Dylan I read something about a year ago which suggested the opposite; you don’t need to make eye contact, the article argued, in order to listen. Why then would you insist somebody looks at you when you speak to them? As I monitored my own behaviour I realised it is indeed the case that my ‘deep listening’ is never accompanied by eye-gaze. In meetings, when teaching or during private conversations I tend to look away if I need to think very hard about something. Maintaining eye contact actually distracts me from processing complex information; if I lock-on eye contact with someone I invariably stop listening to what they are saying.
Since reading that article I have radically changed my practice not just with Dylan but when teaching too. I no longer assume people are not listening if they are not looking at me and the only time I ask Dylan for eye contact is if I want to show him something (demonstrating an emotion with my face for example). Recently I have developed the habit of touching Dylan’s cheek with my finger if I would like him to look at me. The gesture reminds me of an encounter on a train years ago.
It was 1984 and I was travelling from Belfast to London via the overnight service between Stranraer and Euston, I found myself seated with a poet and a novelist. After a while I was seated with just the novelist as the poet spent his time wandering the train, drunk and a bit disruptive. Several times he was told by the guard to remain in his seat or he would be asked to leave the train; by Carlisle the situation had deteriorated and he was ordered off. I remember how troubled and vulnerable the poet seemed that night. I also remember his eyes averted, fixed to the carriage floor.
“Give me your hand”, his friend said to him softly: “give me your hand.” This seemed to calm him and the two men sat holding hands. As the transport police arrived to escort the poet off the train he became distressed again: “Give me your foot”, his friend said to him, “give me your foot”. I looked on in astonishment at the man holding a hand and a foot; I had never seen communication like this before. What I witnessed that night, as well as a tender friendship between two men, was the intuitive action of someone who understood that eyes can sometimes see and feel too much.
Extract from ‘Ways of Drowning’ in Elizabeth Barrett (2005) The Bat Detector. Wrecking Ball Press