[Reprinted from the book Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence by Luke Jackson; copyright © 2002 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.]
"Are you listening to me?" "Look at me when I am talking to you." AS kids, how familiar are those words? Don't they just make you groan? (And that's putting it politely!) Adults seem to make a really big deal of getting people to look at them when they are talking. Apparently it is seen as rude if you don't look at least in the direction of the speaker. This world is full of so many stupid rules! I really hate this one.
[My brother] Joseph rarely looks at anyone when they are talking to him and part of the work they do at school is to get him to do so. I can see the reason why they do this with Joe because he has a big listening and attention problem. When he is not looking at someone he is usually doing his own thing and people are wasting their time talking to him. To find out whether your child or the person you are working with or talking to is listening, the easiest way is to ask them a question related to what you have just said. If they answer and are obviously listening, then personally I think it is irrelevant whether they are looking at you or not.
When I look someone straight in the eye, particularly someone I am not familiar with, the feeling is so uncomfortable that I cannot really describe it. First of all I feel as if their eyes are burning me and I really feel as if I am looking into the face of an alien. I know this sounds rude but I am telling it how it is. If I get past that stage and don't look away, then whilst someone is talking I find myself staring really hard and looking at their features and completely forgetting to listen to what they are saying. Mum says when I was little I used to go right up to people and stare in their faces. They probably looked funny -- I often have to stop myself from giggling when I examine people's faces; there are some very strange ones around!
Sometimes it is too hard to concentrate on listening and looking at the same time. People are hard enough to understand as their words are often so very cryptic, but when their faces are moving around, their eyebrows rising and falling and their eyes getting wider then squinting, I cannot fathom all that out in one go, so to be honest I don't even try.
AS kids, I have found a compromise to this problem that I am practising and working well on. I look at people's mouths. That means that the other person is satisfied enough because you are looking in their direction but yet you do not have to have that horrendous, burning into your very soul feeling that comes with staring into someone's eyes. Just try looking hard at someone's mouth when they are talking and see how many shapes it makes. The trouble with this is the temptation to amuse yourself with this and forget to listen. Another good ploy is to look in the direction of the speaker's ear. This is a good one because it reminds you to listen and provides no distractions (unless of course you find someone with a wiggly one!).
It is best to find some kind of compromise so that you don't stand out too much and appear rude. It can be done. Remember, there is more than one way to skin a cat! (Mum told me this one -- I think it sounds horrible.)