A defining trait of Asperger's Syndrome is the lack of eye contact, not because we're incapable of doing it, but because it works against our brain's wiring. Why? Two reasons.
1. We receive our environment in its entirety, we lack the filter that dissects what is important from what is unimportant. Sitting in a coffee shop can be distracting because every sound and movement catches my attention which has often thrown me off course during a conversation. This means that maintaining eye contact requires thought and effort which in turn distracts me from registering what is being said.
2. Aspies are incredibly sensitive and sense very strongly that we're different. Since the eyes are the windows to the soul, we can become protective of who we allow to peak through the blinds.
As a small child I rarely made eye contact because I wasn't preoccupied with interacting with those around me. My default way of looking at people closely resembles that of a distracted driver looking everywhere but the road, or a dazed person staring blankly at a wall, which could make some people uncomfortable. I slowly but surely realized that I had to adapt to my social surroundings and started mimicking eye contact (among other behaviours) from an early age, grade 1 to be precise. I noticed that the other children would look straight at the teacher while understanding the lesson. I developed the habit of consciously looking at the teacher in the eyes to seem more aware, but the ironic thing is that the more focused I appeared, the less attentive I was. My listening comprehension was compromised while making unnatural eye contact like a complicated multi-tasking assignment that gave my mind an error message. As I got older I observed and imitated more intricate eye contact motions. Within a social setting there are so many subtle but significant eye contact interactions that take place which can be hard to keep up with. Here are a few examples:
• the quick gaze + smirk + nod when an inside joke was understood
• the window of time that eye contact should be maintained
• the direction to look at while eye contact isn't being maintained
• the eye expressions/reaction
Being illiterate in body language can unintentionally get you into trouble. One fail in particular really sticks out in my memory. I was in my grade 8 science class sitting at the very front desk as usual and was focused on making eye contact with my teacher. I guess I missed the boat completely on that one because the teacher interrupted the class to discipline me on my manners "Margo, you're being extremely disrespectful dirty looking me that way. If what I'm talking about disinterests you so much, you're more than welcome to leave!". I was absolutely mortified at the time but I can look back on it now and laugh. Sometimes the misunderstandings are less funny...
Aspies are usually more animated and involved in a one on one interaction. The more people you throw in the mix, the more quiet and confused we may appear. Sometimes we just need a bit of time to feel everyone out before joining in. The ability to appear natural and comfortable in a social setting can be learned but it will require you to break through the glass ceiling, I mean window...unless you prefer window shopping that is!