Autism Dad: Eyes

You’re not listening to me.

She was scurrying about in the kitchen, moving from the sink to the oven to the cutting board: chop, chop, chop. I had something important to say and my frustration was mounting.


Adam, I can do more than one thing at a time.

But you’re not even looking at me when I speak!

I am sorry, but I can’t give you my undivided attention. I am cooking.


Eye contact is important. It implies a connection, an understanding, respect. We want our mother’s eyes focused on us and years later, the eyes of the pretty girl, the eyes of the boss, the eyes of our wife…and finally, the eyes of our child.

Many children with autism tend to avoid eye contact, and Ben is no exception. Sometimes I wonder if autism can be likened to extreme introversion. I don’t know if there’s a shy gene, but in my family there are plenty of examples of people who found social interaction a challenge or perhaps simply preferred their own space. My mother was a big personality but shyness lurked behind it. She loved throwing parties, but remained in the kitchen most of the night, preferring to be behind the scenes, the architect of the evening, the facilitator who brought people together to enjoy good food and conversation. I am a mix–more outgoing than my dad and brother, but increasingly my life is one lived alone.

Ben makes eye contact when he wants to, when he’s motivated. When he misbehaves (which is rare), he’ll give me his hand-in-the-cookie-jar look, which is completely endearing. Thinking he’s alone, he’ll grab a cookie from the pantry and become startled when I enter the kitchen. He’ll turn to me with those big round eyes and just stare innocently until I say:

It’s okay Ben, you can have it.

Sometimes he will bend down and pick up crumbs from the floor that I have yet to sweep (bad Autism Dad!). He’ll look at me guiltily, as well he should.

No Ben! That’s gross!

There are also times I catch him looking at me from a distance.  In fact, sometimes he can be hyper-vigilant. If I leave the room for a mere second, he follows me throughout the house…even to the bathroom (then again, so does Ryan). Sometimes I like to surprise the boys with some ice cream. But before I can get it out of the freezer, Ben jumps off the trampoline and dashes into the kitchen. Though Ben typically avoids eye contact, when it comes to munchies, he sees everything. He has that sixth sense.

Occasionally he will approach a complete stranger and lean in face to face to take a closer look. No problem with eye contact there. Or the way he tries to sneak a peak at Papa, who he adores, then quickly averts his eyes. Causing me to say:

I saw you checking out Papa. You love your Papa don’t you!

Saturday I was tossing the boys on the trampoline. Ryan screamed with pleasure. The very act of tossing him in the air activated his eyes like an adrenaline junky. Ben, meanwhile, had the look of a kid who just got off a rollercoaster, his equilibrium disrupted. While he may not enjoy being tossed through the air, Ben does enjoy jumping on the trampoline; in one photo his eyes suggest utter bliss, what one Autism Dad reader aptly describes as “sensory heaven.”

There is also sensory hell. An example: upon entering Chuckie Cheese, Ben literally jumps into my arms, his eyes clouded with worry, his senses overwhelmed by screaming kids and the giant-size Chuckie. If Ben is tenuous, he is also intrigued. He wants to experience it all, but from the safety and distance of my arms. If Chuckie Cheese represents a version of hell for Ben, he’s not alone. Plenty of parents can relate.

This weekend Ben was especially smiley. I got directly in his face and stared straight into his eyes. I gave him a warm smile and a big kiss. Truthfully, I think it was a little much for him, a bit overwhelming, but he was too nice to say anything and tolerated me. I’m sure he wanted to say:

Dad, do me a favor. Try to pretend cool.

Who cares about cool!?!? I’m cashing in on my hugs and kisses while I still can.

As evening approached and the sky turned black, Ben’s eyelids got heavy and he stared blankly into the distance. I looked at my dad and we exchanged a knowing smile. Time for bed. As I tucked Ben under the covers, I looked into his eyes. I recalled what my friend Gaby once told me. She is the executive director of an autism-services agency in Tijuana. After exchanging photos of our kids, she remarked:

Children with autism seem to have the prettiest eyes.

It’s like you can see right into their souls.

I hope over time that Ben’s eyes will have more contact and connection with the larger world, that he will see many things, sunrises and sunsets, cities and countryside, and that one day he will peer into a microscope and read a book and that one day his green, soulful eyes will meet another’s eyes, a pretty girl’s eyes.

And for a moment as strange as it is thrilling, they will sit and stare deeply into each other’s eyes.


Read More: The Trampoline Story

Editor’s Note: Also available at!/pages/Autism-Dad/160327080653310

This entry was posted in January 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Autism Dad: Eyes

  1. Jean Nicol says:

    This is a beautiful story. So often when we read about this topic it evokes such a sense of desperation, frustration. When I got to the end of your story I felt a sense of peace and understanding. I remember someone once saying about a child with autism, ” When they make eye contact there is meaningful communication happening.” I have found that to be true. I think you and Ben will have increasingly more meaningful communication.

    • Autism Dad says:

      Hi Jean: Thanks for always reading and for posting such a nice comment. I do feel that I have peace and understanding — thankfully way beyond my woe is me phase! Enjoying every moment with the boys and developing the communication. Hope you’re keeping well. Regards………

  2. auntbethany says:

    I love your new header…it’s perfect…kind of like this blog.

    Ah, Chuck E Cheese’s. A place I once loved to go to. Mom and I actually went there, not too recently, to honestly enjoy their pizza for lunch (we love it!). We even played a few games, but had to take Tylenol after our visit from the numbing drone of bells, whistles, and screaming 4-year-olds.

    Green eyes are beautiful. And awesome. Like, Harry-Potter-has-green-eyes kind of awesome. 🙂

    • Autism Dad says:

      Aww, thanks for the super-nice note! When I take the boys, we have the pizza and I nibble on theirs (bad Adam!) but mostly enjoy the salad bar, which is really good out here! Love your description of the “numbing drone” LOL.
      Thanks again……..

  3. This is such a lovely post, and so true. I can relate to what it’s like. When my son looks into my eyes, he reaches right into my soul and tugs at my heart, and I have this moment of tranquility that is indescribable.

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful reflection.


    • Autism Dad says:

      Hey Kirsten: I know, aren’t we lucky to get to experience those intimate moments!! By the way, I am really enjoying your blog! Thanks again for the kind comments………

  4. carla Altland says:

    I posted this on my face book page …you write wonderfully and I enjoy all of it… tears of understanding and joy too!!

  5. cassiejean says:

    Loved the quote from your friend: “Children with autism seem to have the prettiest eyes. It’s like you can see right into their souls.” When I was working with severely autistic kids, I found this to be true… There was one boy in particular, Jeremy. He had the sweetest, deep eyes. He too had a problem with eye contact; but when he did look you right in the face, his eyes communicated such a depth… of pain, of beauty. “Will you love me? Can you help me? I have so much to say… But I don’t know how to say it.” With eyes that spoke such things, all I could do was wipe away my tears, hug him tight, and pray.

  6. Autism Dad says:

    Thanks Cassie for leaving this beautifully expressed comment. I am sure our eyes would be just as beautiful if we were stripped of our armor. I think when a child with autism looks at you, he does so without the protection of armor — he is in the moment, naked, and without agenda. Who knows? It’s interesting to speculate….

    • cassiejean says:

      You’re very welcome. I’m a bit blown away by your comment… I hadn’t thought of it like that. What a beautiful theory (though my heart says, it’s more than a theory…). Thank you so much for sharing.

      • Autism Dad says:

        Thanks Cassie. Shoot, now I wish I had included that sentence in the “Eyes” posting. Maybe I can use it somewhere. Thanks for your amazing comments!!

  7. I’ve never met anyone with autism, so I can’t say from my own experience, but I feel like children with autism have the most powerful voice that we can’t hear.

    My dad always tell me that when you meet someone, look him/her in the eye, and you’ll see who he/she really is. And I think it’s so true… Happy eyes, sad eyes, angry eyes or eyes like dead fish, or innocent and beautiful see through eyes. And I feel that your son Ben has the most beautiful eyes…

  8. kloppenmum says:

    I’ve been doing a ton of reading over the past few years and discovered that why we call shyness is actually senstivity to the environment…like having volume control switches on high for noise, light, texture etc, many shy children/people struggle with eye-contact…so I did have the thought that shyness and autism might be on the same spectrum. I don’t know a lot about autism, so I might be speaking out of turn. But there do seem to be a lot of similarities, and the tendency for shyness does seem to follow genes.

  9. Van Mazzanti says:

    I felt like I was reading my own thoughts and feelings about my son who is 3 and autistic.

    • Autism Dad says:

      Hey Van: Thanks for reading and for taking the time to post a comment. I’m glad you could relate to the words. Well, maybe “glad” is not the right word, but you get me. Thanks again…….

  10. zap says:

    Touching, poetic and warm story. We as humans must rate each other on the caring warm quality of others and that is Ben, not merely his physical traits.

    Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s