Daily Archives: June 22, 2006

Eyeballs, redux.


A recent blog entry and its responses have shown one of those strange perceptual ambiguities in other people that autistic people frequently run up against. It seems that there are two ways in which many aspects of autistic people’s appearance can be taken. I’ve often wondered if this is why people flip so rapidly back and forth between calling me “Hey retard” and calling me a “genius,” that both stereotypes involve roughly the same physical appearance, interpreted two different ways.

My last blog entry on eyeballs focused on my reaction to other people’s eyeballs. This blog entry on eyeballs focuses on other people’s reaction to my eyeballs.

I’d commented that Erik Nanstiel called the look in my eyes a blank stare. Other people commented that I appeared pensive, lost in thought, or thoughtful. I don’t actually think that either one of these says anything about my mental state at the time that people are saying them, but these are not new concepts to me. Like everything else, there are two fairly extreme reactions my eyes get.

When I was first born, people said I had owl eyes, that looked “deep” and made them wonder what was behind them. (I have very large eyes, I’m not sure if that’s part of it or not.) When I was a bit older, before I understood language, but when I was certainly recording sensations that I would later understand as language, I often heard people describe my eyes as “thoughtful”. When I was old enough to understand, people often made the same sorts of comments about my eyes: Thoughtful, deep, spiritual (what on earth “spiritual” eyes look like are anyone’s guess, mind you), and other adjectives that seemed to mean there was some kind of depth of thought (or that I was “thinking” rather that perceiving anything) that was visible by looking at my eyes.

The same eyes, at the same times, have been described in a completely opposite light. People have said that they look blank, like there’s nobody home. Someone once tried to make eye contact with me, because she thought she could read people’s mental states by looking them in the eye, and broke off because she said the total emptiness in my eyes was too scary. She was shaking. People have told each other in my presence that all they had to do was look at my eyes to know that there really wasn’t anybody “in there”. In fact people have used the look in my eyes to wonder whether I was even alive or not. And, of course, the Nanstiels of the world have already registered their comments with words like lonely and vacant.

Now, these are the same eyeballs we’re talking about here. These are not two separate sets of eyeballs, nor, as apparent from the reactions to the same sets of photographs, two separate times that people are looking at these eyeballs. I’ll break down some of the ways in which my eyes (and most of these are things that are true of many autistic people) actually differ from other people’s eyes in appearance.

In actual physical structure, my eyes are much larger (particularly in the sideways direction) than most people’s eyes, and at times I’ve also had eyelashes that enhance that particular appearance. This probably calls people’s attention to them to begin with.

My pupils are often more dilated than they’d be expected to be under any particular lighting conditions. When the rest of my body freezes, sometimes my pupils also freeze in size at very large and don’t respond to light. (These things have variously been interpreted as brain damage, seizures, intoxication, unconsciousness, and death, when people have commented on them. I’m sure there are assorted ways in which they unconsciously influence people’s perception of me as well.)

My eyes have never tracked objects in a typical way. I’m not sure how they do track them, but this has been medically noted since infancy and reconfirmed several times. I suspect that people who look at eyeballs pick up on this in some fashion, even if subtly.

Sometimes my eyes do not move at all regardless of stimulus. Sometimes they just don’t seem to move in any particular response to the stimuli that are being presented. Sometimes they move rapidly and involuntarily all over the place.

My eyes don’t always look symmetrical: Either the lid on one closes more than the other, or they point different directions. (I don’t notice or feel this.)

I don’t generally look right at people’s eyes if I can help it.

I usually use my eyes to look at things with, not to deliberately communicate information.

What I perceive visually doesn’t seem to be what other people perceive. Unless I deliberately look at things (and even sometimes when I try), I don’t see “Here is a bunch of named, distinct objects.” I see a whole lot of patterns, shapes, colors, and so forth. While I have no idea exactly what the difference in appearance is, I suspect that people who do automatically perceive objects in a typical way will move their eyes over them in a different way than I do.

Similarly, I don’t think I always point my eyes at things to look at them. At least, I seem to be able to shift my visual focus without shifting my gaze at all, over a fairly wide range. I’m sure this also leads to differences in where and whether I move my eyes.

When I’m using some other sense, my eyes are of course in standby mode, or picking up information without telling me about it yet.

I don’t always have a lot of facial expression, at least not the typical expressions that people look for. I have often suspected that people’s impression of eyes having an expression of their own, is partly a result of the face around the eyes. My face has one main expression, that it’s in the majority of the time, and it changes into other expressions for much briefer periods of time, and possibly more subtly, than non-autistic people’s faces usually do. (It also, like my eyes, does a bunch of involuntary movement at times that has nothing to do with my mood or intentions.)

I suspect that the combination of all of the above (most of which are common in autistic people, not specific to me, and some of which are probably also common in blind people) causes a general impression of difference from the norm, and people’s assumptions determine how that difference is interpreted.

The thing is, I’m not particularly lost in thought in any of those pictures, any more than I’m particularly vacant. In some of the pictures, I’m even very definitely watching the camera, but when I look at the pictures, my eyes aren’t pointed at it (in some other pictures, my eyes are pointed straight at the camera and I’m not looking at it). It’s certainly usually better for me to be thought of as “thoughtful-looking” than “not there at all,” but I don’t think either one has anything to do with what I’m actually doing or thinking. I am pretty sure I look the same way when I’m very intently carrying on a conversation with someone, focused on wholly external events, watching the person who thinks I’m thinking about something else, or other things like that.

This does seem to be one more area where there’s an appearance of an autistic person that is different from a typical appearance, and a lot more is read into it than there actually is. As far as I know, the above eyeball facts are what are actually likely to be going on at any given time. Whether I appear deep or vacant, thoughtful or incapable of thought, based on that, has very little to do with whatever’s going on in my head (seems to have more to do with whatever’s going on in everyone else’s).