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).


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

16 responses »

  1. Hmm. In the b&w ‘blank stare’ photo, you appeared to me to be looking at the object in your hand. In the colour one, you appeared to be looking somewhere off camera.

    But photographs deceive: they create a stillness which isn’t necessarily there, and a sense of extension in time which also isn’t necessarily there. Even if one’s conscious of it, it’s hard to resist; and surprisingly many people aren’t conscious of it.

    Posture also comes into this: ‘normal’ adults don’t lie on the floor (except, of course, when they do), so obviously you aren’t ‘normal’, so obviously – pick stereotype of choice.

    I realise there’s also an assumption by Nanstiel that ‘normal’ or ‘non-defective’ people never have blank stares.

    Analysing this is useful.

  2. In the black and white photo, I was looking at either the thing in my hand or the things on the floor or both at once, I can’t remember actually. In the color one, I was watching the blinking orange light on the digital camera that told me when it was done taking the picture.

    The lying on the floor perception has always seemed strange to me. It’s one of those things (like curling up in a ball) where I’ve always done it, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve gotten yelled at and/or psychoanalyzed for it. It’s just a body position, there’s no particular hidden meaning, of course, other than, maybe, comfort or utility. (Something I notice about people’s reactions to me is that they attribute a lot more social intent to either my doing things or my lack of doing things, than is actually there.)

    It’s definitely interesting to figure out where these perceptions come from. I have long been expected not only to understand them immediately without being told, but to modify my appearance accordingly in order not to provoke them. I have interest in understanding them, but I have had to figure that out. And I have little desire (or in many cases ability) to modify my appearance.

  3. Some thoughts that I had on reading this. I think the reaction was more to the bare floor than to what your eyes were doing. I remember reading somewhere that Americans consider floors “dirty” whereas in other countries (not sure which ones) they are considered “clean”. therefore we stay off the floor because we dont want to “wade in the filth” Memories of farm living where there might be remnants of animal waste ?? So laying on the floor is showing animal like behaviour. But I wonder if the fact that it showed a bare floor with no “softness” around it sparked feelings of only an animal i.e. cats,dogs etc sleeps on a bare floor. What if there had been a shag rug with pillows- soft light with the reflection of a TV in the background ???? wonder what the attitude would be ??? How different would it be if you showed yourself on a mat in another cultural setting ??

  4. Just to show how perceptions differ, I thought of the color photo as having the blank stare, and the one on the floor to me looked like you were obviously focusing your gaze on the object on the floor.

    I have no idea of how my gaze looks to other people, because I’ve never taken a picture in which I was not intentionally posing for the camera, and therefore staring/focusing on the camera. If someone has taken a candid picture of me, I’ve never seen it. One thing I have noticed is that somewhere about my early teen years, I lost the ability to form a “normal” smile. In pictures, my mouth is either closed or drawn awkwardly to one side, as if I suffer from facial paralysis. I managed the trick when I was a kid, as evidenced by my pictures from when I was in elementary school, but somehow lost it about the time I was in middle school. In some more informal photos, I seem to be totally embarrassed, and am looking at the ground instead of at the photographer, but still with that crooked smile on my face.

  5. I don’t really understand the floor thing either — I’ve always been one to curl up on, lie on, sit on, floors. This is one of those things that I’m only beginning to be vaguely aware that Other People Don’t Do, and I honestly wonder why! And I love the picture of you with the blocks…to me, you look relaxed and interested in that one.

  6. I agree that it’s probably all about setting; I register your eyes/expression as ‘different’, and then probably the other cues come into play to whether my assumption would be ‘screensaver’ (I think it’s a much better description than ‘vacant’ most people have ‘screensaver’ times when things are sort of switched off for a bit) or ‘lost in thought’. It’s part of a huge range of assumptions that I make about people.

  7. I sit on the floor a lot too, often in preference to chairs and couches. I suspect that culture has a lot to do with why floors are considered dirty to some and acceptable space in others– a lot of it has to do with whether shoes are worn in the house or not. In the houses we’ve been in where you take your shoes off at the door, the floor was much more often considered an acceptable-use space than in houses where you didn’t take them off.

    We have some firsthand experience with people’s perceptions of our eyes going from thoughtful to blank. People commented on our “thoughtful” stare as an infant and thought we were making eye contact (although, if they were looking us right in the eyes, I suspect what they interpreted as us looking back at them was probably much more of a deer-in-the-headlights thing). At approximately age 9, people suddenly began to perceive our eyes, even when we were focusing on objects around us, as “spazzing” or “blank” or “lights on, no one home.” It became a frequent subject of bullying. As far as I can tell to this day, absolutely nothing about us or the way we looked at people had changed. Maybe it was yet another one of those things that looked endearing, cute, or mystical in childhood but embarassing and inappropriate in someone older.

    We frequently seem to confound people who insist that they can judge someone’s mental state just by looking into their eyes, either psychically or through cold reading. I wonder if it’s more likely that people in cultures where eye contact is routine tend to express emotions in a “readable” way through their eyes, whereas people in cultures where eye contact isn’t universally acceptable may express their emotional state through other means. As far as I know, there haven’t been any cross-cultural studies on that. Anyway, we’ve had several people insist that they knew when we were paying attention or not paying attention, whether we had been sleeping or not, whether we were lying or not. “I can see it in her eyes.” The majority of the time, whatever they were seeing in our eyes was something they had projected there themselves– especially the ones who insisted they could see whether we were being truthful or not.

    A lot of people have focused on our having larger-than-normal eyes– that was another one of the things that was cute in childhood, but ended up making our face look ‘weird’ and ‘unbalanced’ in adulthood (especially since we have some other minor facial differences that seem to add together for a lot of people to form an overall look that’s slightly “off”). We’ve had some people, including an optometrist, comment on our pupils being unusually dilated (they were apparently enough so for the optometrist to examine our eyes without having to put drops in to dilate them first).

  8. As an NT, I use facial expression (as Amanda noted) and body posture when interpreting gaze.

    In Western culture, we tend to prefer the vigourous, dynamic agent. Firm handshake, upright posture and all that.

    In Nigeria (I lived there four years), where all that tension and vigour would be a waste of scarce calories and generate unwanted heat in a hot climate, people are much more relaxed. While most Canadian NTs would expect someone to stand up, look you in the eye and shake your hand firmly, a Nigerian is likely to remain seated with her head propped up on her arm, more or less looking toward you, as she proffers one limp hand to be shaken.

    Many Canadians would interpret this not as frugality, but as laziness and inattention.

    Amanda has a frugal-type body posture. She uses support (floor; elbows on knees) and has a facial presentation that could be unkindly described as “slack.” For me, this overall picture suggests someone who isn’t particularly present in her own body or for the other people with her, whether because she’s daydreaming or incapable of thought. Eye gaze is interpreted in this overall context.

    Of course, knowing better, I can make a point of disregarding certain signals and focussing on other ones. But people have to know better to do that… otherwise they will defer to their unconscious readings.

  9. That’s actually because I move the minimum amount of body parts necessary to get something done. (“Move” in this case means “change from whatever they’re doing without my interference”, so my body can be moving around a lot without my adding any deliberate movements into the mix at all.) Not because I live in a hot climate (my preference is relatively cold climates; in even moderately hot climates I can barely do anything but lie flat on my back a good chunk of the year), but because it takes a lot of work to move and I think I’ve developed over time a tendency to only move in the most efficient ways I can come up with. (This is also why I use a wheelchair: I can walk much further, understand much more, and do far more things, with the majority of my body, including my head if necessary, physically supported. I’m actually highly active – by my standards – in a wheelchair, whereas before just trying to get to the bathroom and back the requisite amount of times per day not only didn’t happen but wore me out too much to do anything else.)

    It’s very interesting to me that these postures would stand out less in a country with less food and more heat. I think I do them for the same purpose (conservation of energy and effort), but different specific reasons.

  10. The mental caption that came up when looking at the photo with the blocks was “attentive” – which could be either “thinking” or “perceiving” (or both), concerned with either internal or external things (or both), either active or passive (or both), direct or indirect (or both)… The thing where this keeping-the-possibilities-open didn’t automatically happen was “calm” vs. “stressed/overloaded”, so that probably depends on projection a lot. Now that I write it down “attentive” doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot (I don’t mean something mystical either); it just clearly doesn’t mean “vacant”.

    With the color photo there couldn’t be any “fair play” first impressions (except that you look nice), because we figured it was you getting your picture taken in the same way you made the video about typing without looking at the keyboard.

    In childhood we got remarks like “don’t look so angry” from teachers when we were paying attention to what they were saying, and might have looked, for all we knew, interested or even enthusiastic instead. The worst of the bullying we experienced seems to have been somehow connected (aside from “odd behavior” of course) with our face; anything perceived as unusual about it is probably in what it does (or doesn’t) rather than in its physical qualities. There isn’t anything physically unusual about our eyes either, as far as I know.

    Some of us can observe from the physical look of people’s eyes that something is wrong (this presupposes of course that they look at people’s eyes at all), but we usually have to ask “are you sad, stressed, tired, or ill?” unless there are clear behavioral indicators to help narrow it down.

    We also know of an instance where the unusual movements of someone’s eyes and head were entirely ascribed to that person’s physical disability, when it was actually typical autistic avoidance of eye contact. I’m guessing that people’s ideas about your eyes probably differ a lot based on whether you’re in your wheelchair or not.

  11. I really don’t look that different when warned about a photograph, than I do in “candid” photographs. I don’t have the wide variety in facial expressions and body postures that a lot of people seem to. Even if I feel suddenly nervous and tense in a photograph, there is only a slight, if any, change in my visible body postures, as far as I can tell. (I have studied my appearance extensively as an attempt to understand what exactly other people are reacting to in my appearance.)

    I took a picture of another autistic woman who visited recently, and she struck a pose with her wooden map of Russia. That’s the sort of thing I would have trouble doing: I don’t really strike poses, I more just settle into one of the fairly limited amounts of postures I use in everyday life to begin with.

    I don’t even really have the “public display mode” that one autie I know wrote about. I’m just kind of there, and the main difference in my appearance from private to public is that in public I try really hard to keep all of my clothing on.

  12. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » Efficiency and frugality

  13. The B&W photo had me thinking you were concentrating on something you enjoy doing.

    The color photo, it looked like maybe you were looking at something away from the camera, but I wasn’t as confident in my interpretation.

    I photograph nicely in posed photos. In candid ones, I tend to just look very intent on whatever it is I’m looking at or doing. I also sometimes practically bore holes through other people’s heads with my gaze (staring) at times, if I’m really focused on them, and it bothers a lot of people if I do that to them. The rest of the time, I’m cautious and careful about eye contact — I’ll look at people’s eyes but try not to make too much contact. At the point where it is about to get uncomfortable, I look just slightly away from their eyes.

    If the other person is far enough away and people can generally tell what you’re looking at from your gaze, lipreading can look like intense eye-contact interest. (My husband has mild CAPD and uses lipreading to help with understanding the other person. There are a lot more misunderstandings in the car than over dinner, so I tend to start zoning out in the car more, or if I’m driving, focus more on the road.)

    I have a friend who is blind, and the eye thing is a little weird, but I don’t have to make eye contact with him and he has a very expressive voice, and the combination makes for someone I like spending time with. Yes, I’m glad to see him because I like him (I first “met” him through online communication) but also because I can relax certain social demands and not seem weird to him. It’s also nice to be around someone who really doesn’t care what I look like. If I have a geeky t-shirt I’ll describe it to him, but that’s about as far as it goes. (And that’s mostly because if I have a geeky t-shirt on, I want everyone to know just exactly how geeky and in what direction I am.)

  14. I’m non-autistic, but I’ve had my own experiences with people misinterpreting my eye gaze — perhaps related to my attention deficit disorder (not diagnosed until I was about 26 but present from childhood). There were times in my childhood and adolescence when other kids would get offended because they thought I was staring at them, or when they would tease me for finding the ceiling fascinating etc. But usually at these times I wasn’t even noticing what was within my field of vision — I was too intensely wrapped up in whatever daydreaming I was doing to notice anything. I remember trying to train myself not to day dream as much in public so I wouldn’t get people picking on me for staring at the wrong time, but I just couldn’t stop day dreaming. The only thing I really managed to do — mostly, not perfectly — was to at least find ways to avoid the appearance of “staring” at people while I day dream. Or maybe adults are just better at recognizing a “glazed over” daydreaming facial expression than kids and so don’t get as bothered if my eyes happen to be pointed in their direction — I don’t actually know.

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