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Why Won’t Autistics Look, or Pay Attention?

Autistics may seem like they’re not paying attention, or not looking at you, when you want them to know or remember something.  Did you know that the ‘noisiest’ of all the senses is vision? If something is visually distracting you, it is very hard to pay attention to anything else. Now consider what it’s like when all of your senses are giving you too much information. When it’s really important to hear something, or emotions are heightened and you’re wanting to deal with the feelings, or you want to really focus on a smell or taste, do you ever shut your eyes?

When you’re autistic, you’ve got so much more information coming in, because of a sensory system on high alert.  We often can’t keep up with the amount of information coming in, never mind process it in time to do something about it. As a result, we find these ways, these coping mechanisms of shutting down the amount of information that’s coming in, so that we can pay attention to the thing that we think people want us to pay attention to, or to the thing that most interests us.

The central cone of the visual field is where we see the most colours and details, but it is also the part of the eye which provides the highest amount of information.  Outside of this central cone is the peripheral vision, which is still very capable, but less information-dense.  Most neurotypical people only notice information that’s in the central cone of their visual field — straight ahead of where they’re looking — which is actually only a very small portion of the full visual field. Neurotypicals who have lost awareness of peripheral vision can see much more, and there are skills-building exercises if you want sight as broad as autistics have.

We autistics often find it easier to shut our eyes or look at something that is unmoving and unchanging, taking in any visual information through our peripheral vision.  When we don’t look directly at the person or object we’re relating to, we can actually pay attention better by using our peripheral vision and cutting down the clutter of signals to be processed by our often-impaired sensory integration processes.

When we close our eyes, look away, or look down at something unmoving and unchanging, it’s often because we want to pay better attention to your words.  Decluttering the visual field, or viewing things only through the peripheral vision so there are fewer signals, is a profoundly helpful tool in being able to respond appropriately and in a timely fashion to external expectations.

If you want autistics to pay attention, it can be quite counterproductive to make them look at you, and thereby confuse or distract them from actually hearing what you want them to hear.  You would be surprised at what we remember, from times you would swear we are entirely disengaged or unresponsive.  If you help us get healthier by dealing with the lifestyle factors which are undermining our health, and giving effective support for the underlying chronic health issues at the root of our symptoms, it gets much easier for us to both look at you, AND hear what you say.

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