Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Eye contact

Being retired and growing older are hard and I don’t always do them well. But this is not the only time of life with its challenges. My grandchildren remind me frequently that it’s not easy being a kid. And being a “special” kid adds to the drama.

My grandson, Peter, has autism. He is bright, creative, quirky, and full of interesting and unusual perspectives on life. He has attended regular classrooms in public school all this life (it’s called “mainstreaming”), and has excelled, especially in math and computers. He is now 14 years-old and our go-to person when we need help with technology.

While the academic stuff comes easy to him, he has struggled with the social side of life. He now has his circle of friends, which he isn’t interested in expanding. (He once told me, “I’m glad I’m not popular ‘cause then I’d have to talk to all those people.”) Acquiring social skills has been a learning curve.

I remember when he was in the second grade, facing his end-of-the-year assignment. Each student was to give a three-minute public speech, telling the rest of the class something about themselves. They were to write out and practice their speech ahead of time. They could use their manuscript as they spoke.

Peter was one of those rare children who actually loved to write. At one point he wanted to be a writer when he grew up and by eight-years-old had written and illustrated over 20 “books.” (Now his ambition is to do something amazing with computers.)

So, producing the manuscript for the speech offered no problem.

The difficulty came with the other guidelines, chief among which was eye contact. Peter was supposed to look around at people as he spoke. He was instructed to make contact with his audience of second grade peers. He would be graded on this.

Eye contact has been problematic for Peter since infancy; it’s part of autism. He’s actually done quite well and has learned to look people in the eye as he speaks with them. But it’s never become quite natural.

And he doesn’t multitask. Give him a job to do, with clear instructions, and he can pour himself into it with passion. But giving a speech and making eye contact with an audience are two separate tasks for him, and one task too many for it to be easy or natural.

But Peter determined to get it right, so he and his mom came up with a plan. Kristin, my daughter, penciled dots in his manuscript, one after each two sentences. The dot was a clue for Peter to lower his manuscript and look at someone in the audience. They decided on five seconds as a good amount of time for the look. Then they practiced. And Kristin videoed the practices on her phone so they could learn from them.

That seems like a lot of work for the second grade.

Peter is also visually impaired, so he had to hold the manuscript close, right in front of his face. Although he had the speech memorized, he wanted to do it this way. After all, the teacher said to use the manuscript.

So, face well hidden, he stood and began to loudly, clearly read his speech. Then, briskly he lowered his arms and stared straight ahead, in this case at Kristin. When Peter stares, it’s serious. It’s fierce, concentrated and without the blink of an eye. As I watched the video, I could imagine him mentally counting to five. Then up went the manuscript and he loudly read the next two sentences. He reminded me of a robot as he again lowered the manuscript, shifted his head to stare at another person for five fierce seconds. Then up again for the next part. Repeat, repeat, repeat, right to the end. Kristin admirably harnessed her temptation to laugh.

As I said, he was determined to get it right.

And he must have done so, because he passed into the third grade.

Maybe the end product wasn’t quite natural, but I admired his determination and perseverance. I pray that life, mainly other people, will be kind to Peter—whether he avoids eye contact with them, or stares with ferocity. And I pray they listen to what he has to say.

Remembering this gives me courage for my more grown-up challenges. I don’t have a prepared manuscript to help me know what comes next in this phase of life, but I can apply determination, perseverance, and as much wisdom as I can garner from those who have gone before me.


In the early morning hours, I try to make eye contact with God. I confess that it is neither natural nor easy. Sometimes I use guidelines developed by others who’ve learned to do it well. Under their instructions, I may practice a certain number of seconds of concentrated gazing at the sky out my window. Then down again for a quick dip in the Scriptures. Up again to gaze (or meditate, if that’s the right word). Repeat, repeat.

I wonder if I look to God a bit like Peter. I wonder if I have some form of spiritual autism.

At any rate, I sense great patience and kindness coming to me from God’s heart.

And, yes, an occasional chuckle.

1 comment:

  1. Well-done. My nephew has a daughter with severe autism. Life has been very challenging for all of them.