Now that I’ve got your attention…
This is a semi-serious post. Yesterday I began a discussion with my daughter about ‘eye contact.’ I was trying to pre-empt some of the social misdemeanours that she might commit when we return to southern Africa. The thing is, my lass has *the* most incredible staring prowess. When we lived in Namibia, she used to freak the locals out. We’d often hear ”Why must your daughter stare at me so much?” and “That kid is scaring me with the way it is looking at me!”
Even the cat buggered off and left home after the babe in arms trumped it in a staring competition.
My girl isn’t being rude. But in certain parts of Africa, as Libertina Amathila (freedom-fighter against apartheid-turned politician) outlines in her autobiography, youngsters in southern Africa are taught that it is a sign of disrespect to hold eye contact with an adult. And yet – when Africans from this tradition meets a westerner – all too often this comes over as a very negative action to the likes of you and me. This person cannot be trusted. Is shifty.
During the early days of living in southern Africa, I found this lack of eye contact to be distubing. Once (when pregnant and probably feeling even more paranoid than usual) I became convinced that Africans were looking at my crappy footwear. Regarding it with total disgust. Probably thinking “Buy yourself a new pair of shoes, you crazy and scruffy white lady!” But it transpired that they were simply moving their eyes away from my face, then away from my bump – and finally resting on my feet. (Well, this is what my partner explained to me. But the tightwad was probably making an excuse up not to have to treat me to a new pair of shoes.)
And of course, the apartheid system also had an effect on whether a black person dared to hold eye contact with a white person. And the legacy of this still very much remains.
And as I was giving my 9 year old a very nurturing and compassionate mini-lecture providing sage advice such as “so don’t go gawping at people. Okay?” I was reminded of the similarities with regards to misunderstandings about autistic behaviour and eye contact.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I try to raise awareness of autistic spectrum conditions and of any kind of ‘exceptionality.’ And thanks to initiatives such as World Autism Awareness Day and some of the incredible charities and associated campaigners (with a special nod to Potential Plus UK here) society now knows more than ever about some of the more common autistic traits.
Lack of eye contact is often cited as a key characteristic of autism. And this is just one of the huge barriers that ‘autie sorts’ really suffer from a lack of understanding about. Classroom teachers – if the signs of autism are more subtle in a child – might well simply write the kid off as being surly or rude, if they don’t make eye contact. Adults with autism can ‘bomb’ at job interviews, for this reason alone. Even some of the organisations that you might expect a bit more awareness from haven’t clicked just how excruciating it can be for an autie to meet your gaze (The Co-operative retail outlet once asked me in a customer feedback questionnaire ‘Did the till operator make eye contact with you?’ Yes dear reader, you can imagine what my response was….)
And finally – a distressing example – I know of one young man (then undiagnosed autistic) who was mercilessly bullied because he couldn’t look anyone in the eyes. Several of the more immature teenage girls in his classroom took hysterical offence to the fact that his eyes would always drop downwards when talking to them. He’s Staring At My Tits. Cue regular beatings by the other lads and for the rest of his life being known as ‘weirdo’ or ‘pervert.’
So today on World Autie Day – let’s try and not judge everybody else by the eye-balling Stepford Wives cultural and customer service standards.
Let’s convince ourself instead, that it is polite, it is pertinent and sometimes it is the proper thing to do – to look away and to give someone that extra bit of peeper-space.
(So long as you don’t look at my chest today, poppet because this T-shirt has got gravy stains all down it.)