Friday, 6 January 2017

Prompt 6 - Eye Contact. A First Meeting And An Autistic Manifesto

Eye Contact: Write about two people seeing each other for the first time.

A story:

I remember it with what I believe to be a crystal clarity yet I know that my memory is undoubtedly cracked and coloured by dreams and contains a mix of reality and shadows.

I saw her in a station car park.  Standing.  Alone.

I too had arrived in the station car park.  Standing.  Alone.  Afraid.  Excited.  Bewildered.  Surrounded by strangers.  Hopeful.  Anxious.  Four days of the unknown awaited me and though I had prepared and memorised and read written information over and over until I had accounted for practical eventualities there were still social eventualities and the uncertainty of a half-made timetable.

I stood and looked at the people there all waiting for transport to take us to the event, the festival, this shared celebration.  Some had experienced this event before, returning again and again in love with this autistic space.  They talked with each other.  Some of them even hugged one another.

Others, like me, like her, stood in that station car park.  Alone.  Looking forward perhaps to be wearing an interaction badge that said we found it hard to start a conversation but that didn't mean we didn't want one.

I saw her and knew instantly there was something special about her.  From outward appearances she seemed the most interesting person there.  Her clothes?  Well let's just say that they were a rule of their own, and showed her to be a rule all of her own.  She was bright, she was a sight for my eyes.

It wasn't just her clothes. There was something else.  I can't say what because I do not know.  And yet I knew she might touch my life in some way.  It happens like that sometimes.  I see a person and I just know that they are likely to enter into my life and cause an explosion, big or small, before staying part of my life or moving on.

She saw me too.  Dressed in black.  Dressed up to the ones.  Dressed to not impress.  On that day I was dressed to hide, to walk in invisibility, to be average, to never amaze.  She saw me.  And thought I looked boring.  She was right.  I did.

As we were taken from the station to the event we did not talk.  We sat in the same taxi and between us was a woman who turned out not to be Australian.  I think it would be different now.  I would be different.  The taxi driver didn't really know where he was going.  Nobody else did.  I did - because I'd worked so hard memorising a map.  And I tried to speak out the route but was unable to find the confidence to speak loudly enough to be heard or listened to.  Perhaps if the woman who exists now had arrived that day she would have been able to say which way to go.  Perhaps she would have been able to chat in the taxi.  The woman of that day could not.  That woman did not meet the eyes of another except by chance, a momentary fright before hastily looking elsewhere.

Later we met.  The interesting woman and the seemingly boring woman.  Initially refusing eye contact.  Because that would have been too much.

I noticed her hair and took in those colours again.  I noticed the way she stood and played and I wished I was able to play like that.

She noticed my bare, drab exterior.  She noticed the crookedness of my front teeth, uncorrected by teenage orthodontic work.  I looked a little like a cipher, a nothing.

We did not see each other's eyes.

Not until later.

Not until freedom came to me in the storm.

Not until I shed, for a moment, my boring exterior; my total control; my refusal to enjoy and release passionate laughter in the rain.  Not until transformation came, and friendship followed.  Now we see each other's eyes and in those depths everything is well.

That's a story.  A fragment of a story.  But it's only one story.  It's just one happy story of one person meeting another.  Many autistic people could write many stories about eye contact.  Because, for better or for worse, lots of us aren't very good at it.  We're just not.  And you know what?  That's okay.

If you were to meet me three things might happen:
  1. I might meet your eyes and maintain "good" eye contact.
  2. I might appear to meet your eyes and appear to maintain "good" eye contact.
  3. I might not maintain "good" eye contact.
Which of those takes place is in part dependent on my anxiety levels, on how overloaded I am, and on all kinds of inner situations and capability levels.

If the first happens, I am meeting your eyes.  What's going on there?  I am breaking with an autistic stereotype.  Sometimes it's fine.  Sometimes I am able to do it and it feels okay.  Sometimes I am not swamped by the information pouring out of the windows to your soul.  Oh what a rubbish autistic person I am.  People have told me they don't believe I can be autistic because I can do eye contact.  Well bugger that for a game of soldiers.  [What an odd turn of phrase.]

Sometimes I am able to do it but it hurts.  God dammit it hurts.  Maintaining that eye contact produces a terrible headache and every portion of my being goes towards continuing to look at you.  Every portion.  There's nothing left.  If that's happening I won't be processing a single word you are saying to me.  I won't have a clue.  Not until I look away.  I've spent my life doing that and became a wonderful actor.  Almost all of the time people did not have a clue I was experiencing difficulties.  And what does it matter if I miss what someone's saying?  Most of the time it doesn't because nothing important was being said and I could fill in any gaps afterwards.

Sometimes I appear to be making eye contact when in reality I'm not.  I'm not looking at your eyes.  That's too hard.  I'm looking between your eyebrows or at your nose.  I've got to tell you that most people's noses aren't extraordinarily exciting to look at.  I've never seen a nose and wanted to pay for it to have a half-day portrait session and hang pictures of it round my house.  While it must be admitted I've not wanted to pay for anyone to have a portrait session that's not the point.

And then there are the times I just can't do eye contact.  On occasions I can't even manage it with the people I trust the most.  On others I can't manage it with the stranger or the acquaintance.  I just can't.  Even though I might have tried I can't do it.

And I tried.  I did.  I've spent my life trying.  Must maintain eye contact.  Must look at this person even though it's more painful to my mind than a burn is to my skin.  Must do it.  Must do it.  Look.  Look.  Look.  It's right.  It's proper.  Don't look away.  Don't be so rude.  What will they think of you?  You're fucking weak that's what you are.  You're stupid.  You're broken, a mess, and if you don't look that person in the eyes right now then you've failed.  You sodding failure.  Should be ashamed of yourself.  And you are ashamed.  That's good.  At least you've tied yourself to the whipping post and know where you belong.

Yeah, I tried.  Mostly I got away with it, suffering for the art of normalcy.  Breaking myself for the sham of socially acceptable behaviour.  I'm an actress and I trod the boards every time I met you.  I'm an actress and the show must go on and the jazz hands must razzle dazzle the world because without eye contact what would our relationship be?  I acted my way.  Sometimes I would feel crushed by this simple thing.  Yes, simple.  Compared to acting happy.  Compared to faking that smile.  Compared to telling you I'm fine even though I wasn't.  And of course that obvious one:  Compared to pretending to be a man, pretending there wasn't a woman screaming to be released.

I tried.  Because I believed.  I believed one whopping great whopper after another.  I swallowed the lies told to me by society.   There are so many lies.  So many customs and so many social mores.  So many ways we are told what to be and told to buckle down and fit in.

We're told this:  Eye contact is good.  Eye contact is an essential of face to face communication.  Over and over as children we get told that.  All of us do.  "Look at me.  Look, look, look, look, look."  If you look away it's a matter of shame.

Today I say this to you: That's bullshit.  Baloney.  Hooey.  Nonsense.

And I say this to you:  For those of us people, autistic and otherwise, who struggle so hard with eye contact it's oppression, it's one of the little murders inflicted on us by a social structure that does not accept us.

There's a reason why I said "good" eye contact rather than good eye contact.  It's because it isn't good.  And it isn't bad.  It just is what it is.  It's a social construct that people are used to.  It helps many of you communicate and that's fine.  But it's not a law.  It's not something to be enforced.

Across the country autistic children are rewarded for eye contact.  Penalised for avoiding eye contact and maybe for not considering eye contact at all.  Across the country children are told that eye contact is right and they are encouraged (forced) to participate in a custom they find painful.

Even adults can face compulsory eye contact.  It's frequent.  And sometimes it's unexpected.  At a Sunday Assembly meeting last year the keynote speaker talked of laughter yoga.  We were all expected to join in.  He said some shitty things to make us feel stupidly guilty and bad about ourselves if we didn't want to.  Or if we couldn't.  I'm sure he thought he was making a good joke.  So I got up too.  I joined in.  But then he introduced eye contact.  Compulsory eye contact.  Prolonged compulsory eye contact.  With a stranger.  And made us feel bad again if we didn't join in with it.  Well fuck that.  Fuck it.  Excuse my language but such behaviour merits worse than that.  I fell apart.  But not before grabbing my bag and walking out.  That meeting of the Sunday Assembly - a group of people I love meeting with - was a complete disaster for me.   I refused to be forced into that intimacy.  Had I not refused things would have been much worse.

Every time I am assessed - whether by the DWP, a gender specialist, a GP, or a job interview if there ever was to be one - they take note of eye contact.  When I see a gender specialist the statement "Clare maintained good eye contact" means I'm more likely to get referred for treatment.  When I see the DWP the statement "Clare could not maintain eye contact at all" means I'm more likely to score a point, even if I never score enough to qualify for some help.  Both statements by the way were completely true on the occasions they were written.

Today I say this to you:  No more.  No more.  I'm not going to live that way any more. 

I'm going to be a rebel.  Except in those assessments.   I'm not a fool.  I'll not rebel then.  Because I want help.  And I want treatment.

But if I meet you?  For the first time.  For the thousandth time.  If I meet you then that social rule can just sod off and stop causing me pain.

I'm autistic.  I can struggle with eye contact.  So what?  It's not wrong.  It's just me.  And if that causes you any concern?  Well get over it.  Because I choose to be me.  I hereby forge a new manifesto stating that nobody has to look anybody in the eye.

To enforce it in an autistic child who is in pain is close to cruelty.  To expect it of autistic adults is prejudicial.

If I don't look at you don't be offended.  It's not because I hate you.  It's because I don't want to hurt and do want to be able to process what you are saying to me.  To want eye contact is to want pain.  To enforce it is to break me.  From now on - if I can overcome all that lingering guilt - you're going to get eye contact on my terms.  Mine.

The above was pretty much free-written, the words were typed as they came to me.  If you want to read something more clearly written, a thought-out article rather than a rapidly felt-out stream, there are lots of good sources out there.  Here's one by Judy Endow, an autistic woman who helps a lot of people and has written many good articles and books.

Thank you for reading.

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