Speaking up, and encouraging growth and change. (Even if it seems small—it isn’t.)
While eavesdropping on a conversation in a coffee shop recently, I overheard one woman say to her two companions that she was tired of a friend who doesn’t look her in the eye. “She’s always staring at my forehead,” she said. “I hate it. I’m always thinking, just look at my eyes! My eyes!” She chuckled.
The other woman did what I tend to do in conversation: She played “Devil’s Advocate,” adding that maybe her friend has social anxiety,1 or maybe she’s a little socially awkward.
I was seated near the drink station close to the exit, near the garbage and recycling receptacles. Later, as the three readied to leave, the woman who mentioned the no eye-contact friend had to pass me to throw out her refuse. I waved in her direction. With a smile, she stopped by.
I apologized for eavesdropping, but asked if she wanted another perspective on why her friend might stare at her forehead in conversation instead of looking at her eyes. She smiled bright, said she did, and leaned closer. Her chat companions gathered around as I began.
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I briefly shared that although I’m Autistic and can make eye contact after years of being “forced” to, my kids can’t and don’t often. And between them and others I’ve heard from within the local community, I’ve learned it can present as physical pain. (It only does for me if I’m conversing with someone who makes me uncomfortable.)
They were all kind and expressed gratitude, but the man stood there for a moment longer with his mouth slightly agape.
“Thank you,” he finally chimed. “I’ve never thought about that possibility. I had no idea.”
I clarified that it probably wouldn’t be great to tell people they’re autistic when they exhibit traits (and they all humored me by chuckling).
But identifying more potential reasons why someone may do the more “socially unacceptable” thing helps all parties in the end.
After they left, I resumed writing, feeling super proud of myself for taking a moment to spread Autism awareness to people willing to listen.
For one: I asked instead of just diving in and giving my unsolicited opinion. This is something I’m trying to do more with my kids, too.
But it also made me think of the ripple effect our words and actions have on one another.
Since childhood, I only ever intervened or added my thoughts to others’ conversations if there was blatant injustice occurring before me. I’m generally fearful of making waves. I involuntarily shut down4 if something unexpected happens—say, the other party reacts negatively and/or aggressively.
I used to think I held my tongue because I feared confrontation. Yet, after considering some collective actions I’ve taken over the years (like almost getting in a fist fight with a jerk who tried to physically confront my husband over the jerk himself simply being a jerk wanting to start a fight), I no longer believe that’s the case.
Possibly a surprise as a reader of mine, but I hate attention most of the time. I don’t want people to watch or even notice me.
I like pleasantries and exchanged grins and brief, occasional interactions. But more attention than that—especially from strangers—makes me incredibly uncomfortable. So much so that I may even experience said shutdown when things go in an unexpected direction.
But last year, thanks to ongoing therapy, self-education, and a greater understanding of myself, my family, and the workings of neurodivergent brains, I’ve since been easing into speaking up more than just when it’s injustice-based.
I’m learning how to better communicate in non-confrontational ways,5 even though I can’t control others’ reactions, and we no amount of applied effort and/or training will work for every single person. But, since, I’ve been able to turn heated family situations into growth-minded conversations.
I calmed an irate man before he potentially attacked a (likely) homeless woman who slapped his phone out of his hand for absolutely no reason. I mean, other than to seemingly cause chaos after the coffee shop we were sitting outside of asked her to leave—he was just an innocent victim who happened to be sitting near the exit.
I’ve been able to stay calm through situations that would previously drive me to fly off the handle.
But this new way of interacting with the world didn’t come about from a book or a single therapy session. It’s taken years of work.
The main two factors contributing to this growth—other than the benefits of aging—are (1) understanding myself and my values, and (2) caring enough to take time in hopes of making the world better for myself and for others around me.
To me, that’s worth the risk of the unexpected.
I know I’m just one person with a tiny microphone here, but you’re a part of it too. You’re here, reading about the topics I share because you care enough to. You’re equipping my little microphone with a loudspeaker. And maybe you’ve got your own microphone and your own community that you’re making a difference in, too.
What you know and what you have to say matters. Ask. And speak it.
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Eye Contact: Why Autistic People Find It SO Hard To Look Someone in the Eyes, Autistic & Unapologetic