Look into my eyes: autism on the dancefloor

A 2011 fMRI study … found that the brains in a sample of high-functioning autistics and typically developing individuals seemed to respond to eye contact in opposite fashions. In the neurotypical brian, the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) was active to direct gaze, while in the autistic subject, the TPJ was active to averted gaze … The study found the opposite pattern in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: in neurotypicals, activation to averted gaze; in autistics, activation to direct gaze. So it’s not that autistics don’t respond to eye contact, it’s that their response is the opposite of neurotypicals’. The Autistic Brain, Temple Grandin (Harcourt Miffflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013).

A few weeks ago. I am on a 5Rhythms dancefloor. It’s near the end of the dance, and here it comes again that instruction: look into your partner’s eyes. But a couple of things have happened since the last time I was asked to do this. One: I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), aka Asperger’s Syndrome, aka autism. (I prefer ‘autism’, because whereas ‘ASD’ and ‘Asperger’s’ are a having, ‘autism’ is a being, and I am autistic.) Two: I have recently got to this passage in Temple Grandin’s book.

While it isn’t natural for me to look into another person’s eyes, like most older women with autism, over the years I have trained myself to hold all sorts of gaze, in all sorts of different situations, in neurotypical-mimicking ways, so on a purely technical level, I can do this exercise really well – better than many neurotypical people. But the thing is, my gaze is a very skillful forgery – so skillful that unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll never spot it.

After a minute or so of eye-gazing, I see that my partner’s eyes are beginning to tear up. And I am feeling …  at first it seems nothing … but if I stay with myself and keep watching … there it is: I feel pinned, like one of those asphyxiated butterflies impaled on a tiny cushion. I feel incandescent with fury, hot little flames licking up my belly, because once again I have been compromised, manoeuvred, forced, and the only way I know to break through this fakery and blast my way into truth is to get up and walk away … but this is such a fundamental transgression of a human – neurotypical human – rule of intimate engagement that I do not dare. And, yes, it would be one hell of a dance, but if you have ever been in a minority, if you have ever felt the weight and surprising omnipresence – look, it’s even here inside me! – of the arm that polices, you may understand why in this moment a few weeks ago, I cannot stand up and do that dance. So I am left with this nasty-tasting insinuation, this snaky voice in my head, whispering that I am all wrong and that you, neurotypical person, are all right, because you have the tear of the majority in your eye, and the way my brain is wired, this isn’t intimate.

My capacity for social interaction is limited. It’s an effort for me, even now, after decades of practice, to read the signals, and I quickly become exhausted and overloaded. One of the reasons I gravitate to the dancefloor is that, by and large, it offers me an opportunity for engaging with others that bypasses the social and moves directly into a space that I can read and negotiate with fluency. This is a place beyond what can be spoken, beyond the mask of social expression, a space that drops suddenly and sheerly, deep into the hinterland, the silent wilderness of emotion, of a wordless bodily knowing of which thinking mind is mostly unconscious. This is my natural habitat. It’s the place where the real me lurks, half-concealed in shadow behind the social forms. It isn’t a place I choose to live – though I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else – does a lion choose to live in the jungle or a fish in the sea? It’s a habitat written into my genetic code.

My capacity for intimacy is profound. I have no doubt about that. I have had two relationships with people who, in hindsight, I recognise to be autistic. We never looked into each other’s eyes. It wouldn’t have occurred to us. But I experienced a depth and detail of intimacy in those relationships that none with a neurotypical person has ever come close to. I’m not saying that neurotypical people are less capable of intimacy than autistic people, though I do feel that in some ways neurotypical people experience and express intimacy differently. But I know that there are autistic people who are primed for an intense, surpassing intimacy that feels oceanic in it’s bigness and wideness and the fierceness of its tides.

In any form of moving meditation practice, we hold the intention of staying with our experience, of continuing to move with and into it, of continuing to witness it, so that gradually, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, we expand our capacity to include. Our bowl becomes ever more capacious. At the same time, balancing this willingness to be present to whatever arises, is a discriminating awareness that holds the potential to move us away from situations of harm and towards places, people and practices that hold out the possibility of knitting us into wholeness. Where this discriminating faculty is not present or not honoured is the potential for abuse.

When I look into somebody’s eyes and experience the opposite of intimacy, I know this won’t change if I work on it; I know it says nothing about my capacity to connect intimately in many alternative ways; I know that I am simply experiencing my own neurology. Well, I’ve experienced it now, and my sense is that experiencing it repeatedly in this way isn’t going to serve me. In fact, it feels masochistic – or maybe sadistic, because I don’t feel as if I ever consented, not really. I don’t feel as if I was given the opportunity to make an informed choice.

My own experience as a participant is always educating me as a facilitator. How can I create something like this in my own work or not create something like that? So in a way this is myself talking to me here, but I’m also talking to you, out-there facilitator. If I know the structure right at the beginning, I have the opportunity to make a choice about whether or not it’s going to be helpful for me to be in it, because I don’t want to be unnecessarily bruised. I can give informed consent.

For me, offering choice in this way means that we are willing to let our students be adults. We are prepared to honour their personal experience and their inherent ability to feel into what they need, even if they have just walked in the door and never encountered the practice we are offering before. It means we are holding the intention of being as alert as we can to all the subtle ways in which we might be imposing our own preferences and aversions, our maps, our ways and our styles, even our own neurology, on our students. In a sense, we are all imprisoned in who we are, so this requires many leaps of the imagination. I have to be comfortable in my ignorance of you, willing to let go of cherished notions about how I offer my work and how you receive it. I have to be willing to go beyond the point where I think I’ve already done all of this.

I found it very difficult to emerge the ending of this article. I think I wanted some sort of resolution, which, for me right now, isn’t there. I wanted not to offend anyone – always a killer. What I’m actually left with is a sense of conflict. I’m an out autistic in a neurotypical world. Part of me wants to fit in, because that way you survive. You even get to access some of the privileges: work, community, a nice house. The awareness of how absolutely crucial it is to acquire neurotypical behaviours, to be able to pass seamlessly, was borne in on me the day I started school, and I spent many years learning how to look normal and say the right things at the right times. The alternative was to be an outcast. Now, with a diagnosis, an awareness of (dis)ability politics and a commitment to neurodiversity, I’m trying to unlearn some of this. It’s painful and laborious, like peeling off filo-pastry layers of skin. I have naturalised a lot of neurotypical behaviours. Although they aren’t innate, I’ve repeated them so many times, they almost could be. I’m like a person who left her homeland as a small child and learnt a whole new way of life, but deep inside still moves to the beat of the old country. Or as an autistic friend of mine put it, it’s like being an undercover detective. In the end, the two lives become so ravelled up, you hardly know which one belongs to you any more.

And I still don’t know how to finish this article.

13 thoughts on “Look into my eyes: autism on the dancefloor

  1. Thanks Jess. I love the way you’ve expressed yourself, and I can relate to what you’ve written in my own weird and wonderful way. xxx

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  2. That was a beautiful article. It really expressed so many things I could never find the right words for. I’m autistic but can fit into normal society now after years of practice (skillful forgery). I’ve always felt that horrible tension between trying to fit in but feeling compromised and false and forced when I do. …. “I’m like a person who left her homeland as a small child and learnt a whole new way of life, but deep inside still moves to the beat of the old country. ” … definitely this!

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  3. Jess, you write like an angel!
    And thank you for talking from your experience about relational dynamics within the practice. So much is going on in the waves and on our dance-floors, and probably a lot isn’t what it looks like it is at all.
    Love to you, Caroline x

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  4. There’s a lot here for me to think about and investigate and a lot I’d like to respond to. It feels best right now to limit myself to two points.

    1: Usually when I read an article comparing autistic and “neuro-typical” experience, I come away thinking “I must be autistic”. I’ve come away from this article thinking “Maybe I’m neuro-typical after all”. (Because I experience and enjoy emotional communication through silent eye contact, which I don’t in other ways.)

    2. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but you seem to imply that when a 5 Rhythms teacher suggests that we make eye contact with a partner, they have an expectation that all of us will experience this as a deepening of intimacy. I’m sure that sometimes they do have that expectation, but I’m equally sure that very often they don’t – that’s it’s an invitation to experience the action of looking into another person’s eyes, however that happens to be for us in the particular set of circumstances that we find ourselves in.

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    • It seems to me that there’s an intention to invite greater mutual presence, but for me disembodiment is a more likely outcome. The feeling is very unpleasant. Temple Grandin’s article offers me an explanation of why. The neurological origin of the differences in response between autistic and neurotypical people explains to me why this feels innate and unchanging and nothing to do with my capacity for mutual presence, or intimacy. (I think they may be the same thing.)

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  5. Hi, this writing is so interesting because so much can be felt and done with the eyes. The “sense of being looked at” is very strong in South Africa. You cannot look at someone here without them noticing it. Then they turn round and look at you. In certain animals it is even more intense like in horses where you can stop them in their tracks by looking in front of them or by making them move forward by looking at their backside. They do not want to be in the space where you project your thought. Most people project their thoughts where they look. Yes other peoples thoughts have a very limiting effect on us and it feels like imprisonment, I think you describe that process beautifully,
    Many people try to meditate and develop in the early morning when most other people of that area are asleep and not thinking of them. This way it is easy to develop.
    I think turning away is natural if you are very sensitive and want to avoid being put in a box of thought and prejudice.
    Then there is the other side. So much can be observed by looking at the eyes, When I was young many people asked me why i was looking at their lower eyelid and not in their eyes. I felt that i was looking at their expression. But they felt observed and no empathy.
    Then I finally discovered from my artistic mother who painted a great deal that it was important to look at the spaces between objects. Don’t just look at the leaves and the light but the shapes and dark shadows between them. Learning to look at that made it possible to observe the feelings of the trees. Then I realised that looking into the shadow of an eye created the possibility of looking into the soul of other people. You can empathise with their feelings because you were not looking at them but into them. Not at a surface but into nothingness where the emotions are uncovered.

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  6. Hi Jess,

    A friend of mine in your yoga class directed me to your blog because I am also in the process of “coming out” as autistic and, much like when I became aware of being queer, I am going back and realizing how much of my behavior in childhood and adolescence makes sense in light of this new information. When I was younger I went to a lot of drama workshops and courses, and sat through hours and hours of ‘acting’ classes in which I was made to sit across from a partner and stare at them and ‘feel the emotion’ passing between us, or to ‘sense and react’ accordingly to the emotions they were presenting. I felt consistently frustrated at my inability to have an emotional breakthrough like the ones my friends were experiencing, and wondered if this meant I was a bad actor or at best, or coldhearted in general. I now know that’s not true, and also think these workshops, though painful, actually taught me a great deal about how to understand and simulate emotions in real life. Anyway, thanks for helping me come to this conclusion 🙂

    -Zoe

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    • Hi Zoe. I don’t know if you’ve found this yet, but alternative sexualities are more common among autistic people too – queer, trans, gay asexual, the whole lot. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you found this helpful.

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