I was about 20 when I first lifted my gaze and looked around. It was a powerful experience: I could see the world, and I could see the people.
I could navigate with new-found power. It changed my life. It helped me challenge my fears and achieve a lot. But it was expensive, and it took a long time before I realized that it needed to be applied with great care.
I’m a person who needs to look down. I need to use eye contact on my own terms.
The Master Camouflager
At the time when I “lifted my gaze”, I had no notion of being autistic. I had emotions and empathy, so I couldn’t be on the spectrum no matter what doctors had said. I didn’t know about sensory sensitivities and had no idea that my experience of the world might be unusual.
Now I can look back and see it clearly. I had few friends and little energy. I ate irregularly and had only one interest. I struggled to keep up the basics (eating, sleeping, household routines), while I was a skilled violinist and a top student. Much of my childhood and adolescence had been dominated by anxiety, and I had finally reached the other end, I thought. Any challenges I encountered were up to me to tackle. I had the toolbox, and it was my choice to face the world in the best possible way. My belief in my power to mould myself into an exceptional human-being was naively high.
I was a typical Master Camouflager; the cognitively able autistic girl. Well, now I was a woman, beginning to discover the social world.
My social confidence was low after a life-time of failures to fit in. I had an aversion to parties and new places, but my logic was that I just needed to work on it. If I failed, I hadn’t worked hard enough. I had the power to change myself either by Hard Work or Less Resistance, right? Everything is possible, if I want it enough, right?
Actually, there were no question marks. It was all up to me, period. It was my duty to fight, to learn, to expose myself to situations in which I did not yet excel.
Systemizing reality in real-time
Okay, so anyway… I lifted my gaze.
It started gradually, as I was exploring my own fear and hesitance in new social situations and new places.
I began to discover that I could use my eyes to look at where I was headed, and simultaneously analyze what I was seeing.
For the purpose of this article, I call it “real-time Visuospatial Input Systemizing Analysis” (rt-VISA), mainly because I have a weird sense of humor.
If you’re a neurotypical dude, rt-VISA is probably equivalent to moving about in your daily life.
For example, I had always been uncomfortable with walking up to the gym desk to scan my card and perhaps interact briefly with the receptionist (needs great flexibility in motor sequencing, language processing, and more). With rt-VISA, I could start my analysis of the reception area as soon as I got inside the doors, map out every detail, walk to the desk and move my card to the right place, make firm eye contact with the receptionist, say something appropriate, and move on. I also applied little tricks when needed, such as pretending to look through my backpack to give myself extra time. In meetings or other social situations, I could apply the method to social cues — body language, faces and eyes — to match my behavior to the situation and read other people’s body language.
As I got better and better at applying rt-VISA, my social confidence increased, and I was astonished. The key to existing without discomfort was simply to LOOK AROUND — or so I thought.
My discovery of rt-VISA was accidental, and I used it for years. My narrative was that I was just becoming more present, more aware…
Driving on an empty tank
The thing is… I wasn’t simply “looking up”, or “facing the world”.
I was using all available neural resources to navigate an insanely complicated reality, without having the brain circuitry or energy to do so seamlessly.
The complexity of the acronym I made up, rt-VISA, is my way of illustrating how I need an elaborate manual method for doing something that others would call “going about their day”.
It was a weirdly fragile existence. My skills collapsed at the most inconvenient moments, and I needed to be physically and mentally fit for them to operate reliably. When rt-VISA broke down, everything was chaotic again. I was almost always tired, and regularly felt devastated when I had “failed” and in a less-than-fluent way escaped a situation that had become too overwhelming.
Over the course of another decade, my social confidence dropped for every failure, and I decided that I was a person who functioned best 1) alone and 2) in nature. If someone asked if I wanted to go out for drinks, I’d say something like “I’m much more fun to meet during daytime, in a kayak”, or, more often, “I’m sorry, but I have to work!”.
Later, neuropsychological and psychophysical tests have shown that my visuospatial skills are superior, whereas my ability to organize unpredictable inputs is very impaired. In addition, if I focus on something specific, my brain doesn’t always react properly to other incoming inputs, which makes it harder to experience reality in an automated way.
So, rt-VISA is my way of using a neural strength to compensate for a neural impairment.
Finding a balance
I had to become a neuroscientist and serendipidously enter the research field of autism spectrum conditions before I gained the openness and capacity that allowed me to look at what I was really doing.
It was at Princeton University, 15 years after discovering rt-VISA, that I found myself in a neurodiverse context where I could relax a bit. At the time I had already understood that I had problems with sensory processing and a high degree of autistic traits (diagnosis came later). Professional conversations about the neuroscience behind compensatory mechanisms (like autistic camouflaging) made me look more closely at my own behavior.
I began to experiment with taking breaks from using rt-VISA, even within situations that I thought required it. I found its ON and OFF buttons, metaphorically speaking, in the sense that I started to lower my gaze or close my eyes whenever no one looked. My real-time analysis now incorporated a great deal of energy management and self-monitoring. It was a different kind of executive control, but the net outcome was that I saved energy and increased my well-being.
Learning to lift my gaze and use rt-VISA has led to amazing progress. I’ve lived on three continents and become a scientist who supervises people, gives talks, goes to conferences… I still can’t organize my eat/sleep patterns, but I’ve achieved relative professional success. Sure, there’s intolerance all around me, but it matters so much less when I actually tolerate myself and my limitations. All in all, when I am selective about when to apply rt-VISA, I free up some mental resources to leverage my abilities.