Looking People in the Eye and Autism

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When I lived on Hilton Head Island, I’d occasionally drive to the outdoor grill in Harbor Town with Rex, our rescue dog. I’d sit and someone would quickly come over. With water for Rex. They’d fawn over him, say what a cute dog he was and walk away; without taking my order.

The bartender at Jump-n-Phil’s, where locals gathered, kept his 1964 vintage caddie in our garage for safe-keeping. I’d go in, sit at the bar, and he wouldn’t notice me for my usual order of cheese sticks for a long time. (Note, I always ordered the same thing).

I pondered this for a while. The lack of response I’d get from other people. I’m a little slow, but I eventually accepted I was the one constant in the equation. Therefore, I had an issue.

Numerous other things crept up over the years until finally I went and had an extensive battery of psychological tests. The results showed that I was on the autism scale. High-functioning, but there.

The other night we were watching a show about the human brain and it touched on people with autism and empathy. It’s titled The Brain with David Eagleman. It’s on Prime and Youtube if interested. They ran an experiment where they tracked the eye movement of the subject watching images of people’s faces with varying degrees of emotion expressed on those faces. Autistic subjects had a hard time correctly determining what emotions the facial expressions displayed. Autistic people have a hard time ‘reading’ others.

Second, the tracking of their eye movements showed that autistic people focus on the mouth, trying to discern the emotion. Most people focus on the eyes and get a much better reading of emotion. Interestingly, when an autistic inhaled oxytocin, their eye movement was more ‘normal’, focusing on the eyes, which is intriguing.

I realized that I rarely make eye contact with people. I’d always joke that was from growing up in the Bronx and taking the subway to high school. You simply don’t make eye contact on the subway, right New Yorkers? But the grill at Harbor Town and the local restaurant weren’t the subway. I didn’t make eye contact there either and because of it, didn’t get promptly served. Because my nonverbal communication didn’t indicate I wanted to be served. I didn’t engage.

Why this is relevant to me now is that it’s really affected my writing, and life, over the years. In some ways, I had difficulty making ‘eye contact’ with readers. I’d always felt I had a point of view problem in my writing, but this is different. It’s deeper and more fundamental. I’ve written books that were very well-reviewed, sold millions of copies, etc, but I felt something was lacking.

Last year I began writing a book, New York Minute, with a point of view I’ve never done before: single-person, omniscient, translucent. Yes, your brain just exploded. Basically, I stay with one character for the entire story, but not in first person. In omniscient voice. But I knew what the character was thinking and feeling.

Here’s the important thing: the character, Will Kane, is also autistic but doesn’t know it. He’s a highly trained and experienced former Green Beret. A West Point graduate. It’s set in 1977. But he’s got some pieces that aren’t working right. I’m really looking forward to seeing how readers will react to such a flawed character. He is not your usual thriller hero, aka James Bond. In a future post, I’ll write why I decided to write such a person.

Disclaimer: This is my opinion and my experiences; I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. I also don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject.

Originally published at https://bobmayer.com.

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com

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