Something common to a lot of autistic people, though never all, is that we tend to look down a lot. Growing up, I heard a few explanations for why I did it, shyness and guilt being the most common. Strangely enough, no one ever asked me why I looked down a lot; they just kept telling me not to do it.
Do you have an aspie or autistic person in your life who looks down a lot? Maybe they’re like me, and they keep their eyes downcast for one of these five reasons:
- Light Sensitivity – My eyes are very sensitive to bright lights. During the day, one of the brightest lights of all sits up in the sky from dawn til dusk. I look down to protect my eyes from the brilliant light of day. You might think, “Just don’t look up”, but in that you show that you don’t understand how very sensitive we can be. Without special glasses, not just sunglasses, but special Irlen lenses, I cannot look above the horizon without pain. If it’s 10am and the sun is still firmly in the east, I can turn my back and face west, but as soon as my gaze goes above the horizon it is pain, and squinting, watery eyes. Before my Irlen lenses, and I’ll talk about them one day, down was the only safe direction to look when outside during the day.
- Tripping – Poor proprioception, or awareness of your body in space, is a hallmark trait of people on the spectrum. Because of it we tend to be clumsy, in general. I look down when I’m walking so I can see where I’m putting my feet. If I can see my feet, they’re much less likely to betray me colliding with each other, stubbing a toe, or tripping over a smooth floor. Stairs were especially hazardous. So if the footing was ever the least bit in doubt, I look down so I can keep track of my feet and tell them what to do.
- Reduced Distractions – “Will you hurry up? Stop looking at that and come on!” Ever hear words like those? Ever think or say them to an aspie in your life? Looking down is also a defense mechanism for navigating distracting environments. Stores, for example. Making it through a store without getting yelled at or losing my mother was much easier if I kept me eyes down and kept my parent’s feet in my peripheral vision. It also reduces visual input. Not all visual sensitivity is about bright lights. Colors, patterns, motion are all part of it to. Looking down in stores and especially malls was much safer.
- Avoiding Eye Contact – Everyone who knows about the autism spectrum knows about eye contact. Nobody knows it better than those of us on the spectrum. When eye contact feels like an electric jolt through the body, or worse, you learn to avoid it. By keeping your eyes downcast, you eliminate the chance of making any accidental eye contact. Very handy in social gatherings and busy places.
- Vision Not the Dominant Sense – This one may surprise a few people, but for a lot of people on the spectrum, vision isn’t our sense of choice. For some it’s hearing, or even touch or smell. For me, it was hearing. I would look down so I can see my immediate path. I’d hand the seeing over to the reptile part of my brain; it’s just smart enough to keep me walking without running into things, or to follow one particular set of feet in front of me. Then I would focus on perceiving my environment through hearing. I knew a lot of places by sound and I recognized most people by their voices, not their faces. I looked down because what my eyes could tell me about the world just didn’t seem as important as what my ears could tell me.
So there you have it. My five reasons for why I often have my eyes downcast. I do it a little less now that I’m older. My glasses let me look up without pain and see a clear blue sky. I trained myself to endure eye contact, mostly, so that’s less of an issue. My senses have integrated a little better as I aged, so my vision is right up there with hearing these days. But to one extent or another, these all apply today as well, and I’m more comfortable watching the ground in front of me than I am watching the sky or scenery as I walk.
If you’re on the spectrum, do any of these sound familiar? Do you have your own reasons for having downcast eyes? If you know someone on the spectrum, now you may know why they are always looking at the ground as well. Of course if you want to be sure, you could always just ask them.