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eye contact with Bats

Eye contact with humans is hard. I find holding the gaze of another person for longer than a few seconds excruciatingly painful. It physically feels like the liquids inside my eyeballs are boiling hot. Failing at sustained eye contact is one of the 'deficit' red flags of autism - but the foundations that this 'failure' and 'deficit' are built on are not only ableist - but racist, sexist and human-centric too.

In western culture, making eye contact has been turned into the defining characteristic of honesty and connection between humans. We've all heard it - if someone can't look you in the eye, they're obviously lying. But are they? For many cultures all over the world, making and/or holding eye contact is considered rude and disrespectful. For many women - and any person who is a survivor of violence - avoiding eye contact can be a response to trauma. And for most nonhuman animals, sustained eye contact is a threatening gesture that communicates defensiveness, fear, imminent attack, or predation.

I argue that an aversion to eye contact is not a deficit, but a very clear communication between the brain and our visual sensory system about where energy needs to go in order to maintain focus and connection on another being. I wonder sometimes if the intense sensory reaction I feel in and around my eyes when making eye contact is caused by the synesthesia I experience in response to other sensory and social stimuli? If so, it would make sense that positive stimuli might not cause such an intense, negative sensation when making eye contact. I decided to test this idea out with a community of people who don't cause me social exhaustion or distress: Bats.

Eye contact with Bats is amazing! Being very social people, Bats don't mind a bit of eye contact. When I walk into a Flying Fox camp, most of the Bats fix their eyes on me and hold their gaze for a long time. This is caution - they're keeping an eye on me to make sure I'm not a predator or planning to cause them any trouble. After a while, though, caution turns to comfort. Some Bats go to sleep or groom themselves, others fly or crawl closer and keep looking at me - but with curiousity. These are the Bats who I choose to draw, those who choose to keep engaging with me.

I drew both hanging Bats and Bats in flight while making eye contact with them more than the page. Intentionally, I decided not to worry about making 'good' or accurate drawings, or even finishing drawing a Bat before moving on to the next person. I was more interested in expressing the moment-to-moment experience of holding the gaze of a Bat. Because prolonged, unbroken eye contact with most animals is threatening to them, I let my gaze wander for a moment to their wings, a wandering thumb hook, particular patterns and shadows on their fur and black membrane before returning to eye contact.

With eye contact as my focus, other Batty body parts and movements often became smudges or streaked lines in my vision. Many of my individual Bat sketches became mixtures of more than one Bat as their movements blended into each other and eye contact was passed from one Bat to another. Just like a visual conversation with no words. I noticed immediately that this kind of eye contact came easily for me, it didn't hurt - in fact, it was very nourishing and enjoyable. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. I feel much more comfortable, engaged and capable when spending time and social energy with nonhumans than what I do with humans.

  2. When forced to make eye contact with humans, it is considered rude to do anything else - like drawing - to help filter sensory reactions to the stimuli.

What this means is that my negative sensory experience of eye contact with humans may have a lot to do with the rules of engagement. It's not generally considered okay to do something else while talking to another person - yet autistic people are reknowned for deflecting eye contact in favour of patterns, objects, images, or actions even though they are still listening.

Being forced to maintain eye contact often results in me missing most of what the other person is saying because all that distracting, painful sensory and social energy keeps building up with nowhere to go. When making eye contact with Bats, though, those social rules don't exist and all the sensory and social energy goes into my drawings instead. Being free to draw while looking into the eyes of a Bat created a much more comfortable connection and experience.

The sketches may not be artistic masterpieces, but they represent a major success for me as an autistic person. Each Bat drawn is a nonverbal conversation I had with multiple Bats...who I also managed to make and hold comfortable eye contact with in a way that I cannot do with other humans.

*Artworks & images of artworks belong to Sara Kian-Judge 2023.

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1 Comment

Randy Eady
Randy Eady
Nov 14, 2023

Time simply becomes a form of space.

Reaching to space or nothing

In the mind [of bats]

Time simply becomes a form of space.

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