The Dull Gaze

misty golden sunlight filters in soft beams through an opening in a bronze-toned woodland.

The idea of gaze – le regard – was introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-1940s. Part of what this says is that being aware you are observed, you become aware of yourself as an object of observation, and contemplate how you appear. Where Sartre goes with this is not hugely significant here. What does matter is that 30 years later feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey developed one aspect of the idea of gaze – The Male Gaze – in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘ which was published two years later in 1975. That idea of the Male Gaze has inevitably been discussed, challenged, elaborated and tweaked over the decades, but in the process it kept the idea of gaze alive, and tied intimately to feminist theory. It is from this base that discussions have developed among other communities around the straight gaze, able gaze and, more recently the cis gaze. That last was a topic at the centre of a thesis written a couple of years ago by one of my daughters, a process that led me to focus on the idea more closely and consider its implications from a specifically Autistic location.

There are several ways to approach this, and rather than get tangled up in past discussions of gaze (and performance and performativity which will both also probably get a look in here) I will keep this simple and focus on laying out some basic ideas. For the purposes of this discussion I will use the word ‘dull’ to signify those humans not bestowed with the suite of characteristics generally associated with Autistic people. This references a lack of sensory sensitivity and state of alertness in particular, and in that sense ‘dull’ should be read not as derogatory, but simply as a range on a scale. I will cover the validity of using the term ‘dull’ elsewhere.

The Dull Gaze, then, is the non-Autistic eye looking on autisticness from outside. It is informed by some mix of the psychiatric and media presentations of ‘autism’ with the individual’s personal experience of, and understanding of, what significant observable features constitute ‘autism’, but also includes a number of features which may be expected to be effectively invisible, for example an expected intellectual capacity, emotional state or volatility, motives, expectations and so on. Included in this is some sense of how Autistic people are presumed to view non-Autistic people. This points to a recursive aspect of gaze that tends to get ignored and which I will pick up on later. Repeatedly.

And what of the object? That concept of gaze includes the awareness of the person who is being observed that they are observed. Thus when considering what Dull Gaze is we also need to take account of the Autistic awareness of what that non-Autistic gaze is seeing, or understands itself to see.

One other element to take into consideration is judgement. It is a feature of all human gaze that some form of judgement follows. As an inherently hierarchical social species, a degree of ranking, and assessment of like-ness and other-ness, inevitably is contained in the act of gazing. And there is (inter)action that follows from this. Gaze does not exist in isolation but is one element in a complex of real-time interaction. The awareness that one is gazing on a presentation of ‘autism’ inevitably colours understanding, essentially activating that Dull Gaze, but also informing decisions that follow from that. It should be noted that one consequence is often that active seeing is brought to an end in many cases, and the Autistic person is replaced by a fictional object called ‘autism.’ Consider this as equivalent to a woman in a bar being replaced in the eye of a gazer with ‘sexy babe.’ In both cases the autonomous individual is treated as an object with a suite of characteristics assigned by the gazer that define that person’s functionality from the gazer’s perspective and overrides signals that suggest otherwise.

A straightforward example of this process which most aut Autistic people are very familiar with is the process of disclosure. The act of stating “I am autistic” generates a Dull Gaze, and the dull person thereafter acts in ways that are informed by that revelation. In most cases the Autistic person is conscious that this change will occur and reveals that information with some awareness of what kind of responses may arise. The process does not start with the point of disclosure. It develops first in the Autistic person’s mind, and includes a review of how they have performed as ‘Human’ and as ‘Autistic Human’ thus far before this individual, and how they have themselves viewed the responses that individual offered. They will be conscious also that they may or may not have performed the masking process effectively up to this point and that their understanding of how well that masking has been performed may not be accurate. Just considering this in itself plays a part in the way an Autistic person presents themselves in the run up to disclosure. Their masking may glitch either involuntarily or voluntarily, and they may or may not be fully conscious that this has occurred. The whole process is therefore one of multiple feedback loops. Following disclosure, the Autistic person is freed to Be Autistic, but even that has an inevitable self-consciousness about it. There is an awareness that from this point this other person will apply the Dull Gaze even while many others will not, creating a problem around how to present and how this may be read. This complex of internal and external feedbacks is similar to those gay, lesbian, bi* and trans* people will be familiar with.

There is clearly a distinct difference between how the Male Gaze and the Dull Gaze (or straight, cis or some other forms of gaze) operate. There is not simply a state of being that can be gazed on from outside, but a point at which the gaze is invoked. This makes drawing parallels with the idea of Male Gaze somewhat problematic. The environment is often not the same.

I will now introduce a notion which I will cover in detail elsewhere and which, for now, will need to be treated as a given. Autistic people are, in the main, raised within a context that informs them that their understanding of their environment is flawed. This does not at all need to be some deliberate process of informing the person but a reasoned conclusion the Autistic person arrives at based on the process of observation, analysis, response, observation of the consequences of that response, and analysis of those consequences. This is essentially the feedback loop (another feedback loop) by which we learn from our environment. This can be most quickly explained using an example.

Person 1 observes Person 2 approach Person 3 and greet them a particular way. Person 3 responds a particular way to the greeting. Person 1 then approaches Person 3 and greets them in a similar manner, but receives a different response. It is not unreasonable for Person 1 to now consider how the situations differ. Having observed similar interactions between multiple people over the course of time, Person 1 again attempts this greeting with several other individuals and receives yet again responses that approximate to their first experience rather than to the response they see others receive. On further consideration, it is not unreasonable to conclude that one is ‘doing something wrong.’

This experience is one that recurs over and over again across a multitude of situations when interacting with other humans in particular. Further, most Autistic people will come to notice that they interact with non-human animals and with inanimate objects in ways that differ from their peers. Indeed, it is not uncommon for others to take the trouble to tell them so, and to provide them with a definition of that interaction as ‘weird’ or ‘not normal’ or ‘freaky’.

In addition, if that Autistic person is aware that they are Autistic (this is not a given), they will also be subjected to other, more general observations on the nature of Autistic people, from the media or overheard conversations for example.

In a sense, we can say that Autistic people are subject to a form of gaslighting. It is not at all clear whether they are doing something which they cannot see is fundamentally ‘wrong’, or are doing the ‘right’ thing but in a context which they cannot see is fundamentally ‘wrong’, or are doing the right thing in the right context and are misreading the response. Or perhaps they aren’t Autistic?

Who am I really? What am I? How am I this person? Am I this person? What is this person?

The significance of this sense of uncertainty cannot be overstated. It pervades so many aspects of life for Autistic people as to effectively be a chronic state of uncertainty.

So, when an Autistic person is conscious that they are subject to the Dull Gaze, there are a multiplicity of factors that immediately come into play. More, with a lifetime of experience with chronic uncertainty, how one can or should respond to that gaze is not at all clear. What actually qualifies as ‘appropriate’?

Unravelling the background to this, understanding how to approach disclosure, the role of masking, building a sense of self without reliable reference points… there are multiple directions this can and should now go. Those are topics for another time however. First, it is worth looking at some examples of the Dull Gaze at work.

To bring this back to the world of film studies, the starting point has to be Rain Man. Immediately we realise there is a distinct difference between Dull Gaze and Male Gaze in that most people came across Rain Man with little or no expectation about what this ‘autistic savant’ character would be like. Surprisingly little has been written about the impact of this film from an Autistic perspective, perhaps because most Autistics would rather it just disappeared. Most of what has been written is as unhelpful as the movie itself.

What we can say is that this film is effectively Day Zero, being the start point for most peoples’ sense of what ‘autistic’ means. As such it is the anchor to which the Dull Gaze is fixed. Much has been made of the inaccuracy of the savant angle, though the suite of ‘what autistic is’ characteristics perhaps has more significance in other ways – the paradox of being presented both as unemotional yet prone to overly emotional reactions, being highly logical in an illogical way, both of which have endured far more strongly than makes any real sense. There are also the stims, drab clothing, passive, dour manner (particularly when contrasted against Cruise’s character), rigid routines and sameness, Raymond is institutionalised, was believed to be a danger to his brother, has no friends and lacks what we could call street sense. He is fundamentally dependent on others for his care and to communicate for him, despite being fully speaking. His savant skills also are worth review, featuring both mathematical ability and remarkable memory, and linked closely to a deep commitment to facts and completism.

On paper, some of these can be matched to characteristics of real Autistic individuals, though a lot are way off the mark. What is notable is just how much of this basic template has endured through many subsequent ‘autistic’ characters in movies, stage and TV. These have become the checklist used to define a character as Autistic, and have fed into expectations outside the entertainment world also. This is, essentially, the basis for the Dull Gaze, albeit with some updates to include techie genius and a predilection for sci-fi.

We can summarise these as social ineptitude and disinterest, having an unappealing physical appearance, being dangerous, skills directed to purposeless ends, dependency, lack of emotion, desire for sameness, being easily manipulated, and lacking judgement.

What is notable about this set is that represents almost everything we should regard as undesirable in a person, everything we strive to avoid in ourselves. It is, in short, a picture of non-humanness, or at the least a picture of what is least appealing in a human. It is notable however that Raymond is not non-speaking and is not described as having a low IQ or as ‘severe.’ These are characteristics we can, we are told, validy expect in any Autistic person. Though media portrayals since 1988 often appear on the surface to be ‘kinder’ or ‘better’, they nonetheless clearly reference this same checklist in a tediously mechanical way even when, we are told, the director or actor ‘consulted with Autistics.’

So, this is the basis of the Dull Gaze. Unlike the Male Gaze which transferred assumptions and intentions from off-screen into the cinematic world, here the transfer is reversed. Nowhere here, and rarely since, has due importance been given to common Autistic characteristics or needs such as visual, auditory or tactile sensitivity, anxiety that follows from definable causes, examples of experiencing deliberate exclusion and infantilisation, inertia, the deep pleasure of hyperfocus and patterns. In so far as they are referenced, they tend to be presented from the Dull Gaze, as inexplicable and purposeless.

It is this collection of stereotypes and invisible characteristics that Autistics understand they are contending with when they invoke the Dull Gaze. Do you begin presenting a narrative about yourself or trust this person to observe? Do you continue as before disclosure? Are you now free to ‘act Autistic’ and if so, are there limits of ‘acceptable Autisticness’ post-disclosure? In many ways, it is quite similar to coming out as Transgender. There are clearly expectations about what you ‘should’ do or want, ways you ‘should’ now act. This immediately becomes a burden, a responsibility to perform Autisticness.

When we transfer that gaze into other contexts, away from the one-on-one disclosure to a friend or colleague, the ability of the Autistic to manage the process, which is questionable at the best of times, disappears. The rules change dramatically.

The commonest example is perhaps the child enrolled in a ‘special school’ or ‘unit’ for education. The entire basis for their enrolment is ‘their autism’ and not only are all aware of this, the whole environment has been structured with that in mind. The Dull Gaze is not just already in situ, it has informed the environment, the curriculum and the training of staff. More, the child has likely very limited self-awareness as an Autistic person and, with the power balance being what it is, has little opportunity to manage the relationship and its consequences. The extent to which that child develops a sense of self based on that Dull Gaze is considerable. One major consequence is that their relationship with others outside that setting is, as a result, wholly informed by the Dull Gaze. Given that that gaze is based on an inaccurate and incomplete collection of characteristics framed as disorders, deficits and incapabilities, it is extremely difficult to push back against that, particularly without Autistic role models to reference.

The consequences too often are poor self-image, an apologetic, shamed approach to interaction with others, heightened anxiety, and subsequent mental health issues. Even with positive examples to work from, the process of interacting in the role of ‘Autistic Human’ relies primarily on defensive and negative approaches. The Dull Gaze needs to be identified, disempowered, countered, and only then replaced with an alternative which itself too often has to be presented as “not like that, like this”, thus starting from a negative. Frankly, it is an enormously taxing and risky undertaking.

These are considerable barriers for anyone to overcome with any confidence of success. Thus most Autistic people resort to a combination of self-exclusion to avoid problematic encounters, and masking so as to hopefully not have the issue of being Autistic arise at all, and that in itself creates a series of issues that are by turns compromising, debilitating and disempowering.

There are no easy solutions to this. Unlike some communities, Autistics have no long history to lean on, little by way of widely known reliable role models, and no solid, coherent model of the Autistic condition from an Autistic perspective to reference. Neither is there a numerous, active community to share experiences with that is easily accessible except as an adult and then mostly via the internet. Outside the highly constrained and limited educational ghetto of ‘the unit’ and perhaps a degree of interaction with peers as a side-effect of parent support groups, there is no sense at all of a broad-based, multi-generational community to which one belongs.

The role of the media here is considerable, not just as a source of stereotypes, but as a potential means to enable the presentation of an Autistic Gaze. We as a community have been failed and continue to be failed by deeply problematic presentations such as All In A Row, The A-Word, Atypical and so on, and worse, the praise heaped on their alleged authenticity by non-Autistic ‘experts’. Even though she is problematic in many, many ways, the character Julia on Sesame Street remains probably the most positive representation of an Autistic fictional character on TV or in the cinema. Sadly, the small step she represents has recently been subverted by association with deeply negative concepts and scaremongering thanks to Autism Speaks. Coupled with widespread assumptions about unpredictability and violence in news stories (notably repeated and inaccurate association with school shooting incidents in the USA), the basis of the Dull Gaze remains soundly negative and based on expectations of incapacity, danger, unreliability and antisocial behaviour. Little exists to counter that – even ‘feelgood’ stories tend to focus on the kindness of others, or on a person achieving ‘despite autism’ or by ‘overcoming autism.’

Remedying this is an enormous task. It requires access to create new media representations, resources to ensure those representations are widely propagated, more resources to counter and disempower existing and newly arising negative representations, a wholesale re-education of key professions on a massive scale across multiple areas of life including education, psychiatry and medicine. On top of that there is a legacy of deeply scarred Autistics who require support, guidance and therapy to address the harm already done. It is clear that this is likely to be a multi-generational project. Indeed, it already is, having been underway now for more than three decades. What is encouraging however is that today we have the beginnings of a sound theoretical base to work from and increasing numbers of children and young people who are being raised and nurtured in positive ways, often by parents who are themselves Autistic.

We do need allies however among the non-Autistic world who are willing to run their hand across their face, sweeping away any vestiges of that Dull Gaze, and see us through our eyes. To achieve that effectively we need a coherent and intelligible model of the world seen with an untarnished Autistic Gaze. Part of the purpose of this site is to attempt to present just that. The few feral Autistics in a position to frame and communicate that perspective have limited access to suitable channels of communication. With that in mind, perhaps the most effective act of allyship at present is to simply clear a space and quiet the crowd, and resist the temptation to make use of that space to narrate the story. That temptation has trapped more than one otherwise valuable ally in recent times. There is a humility as well as power required, and unfortunately that is a combination too rarely found in this world.

Today’s excursion was delivered with the support of:

Thievery Corporation, Culture of Fear, 2011
The Selecter, Too Much Pressure, 1980
The Selecter, Celebrate the Bullet, 1981
Susheela Raman, Salt Rain, 2001
Thelonius Monk, Off Minor, 1964
Siouxie and the Banshees, The Scream, 1978
Siouxie and the Banshees, Juju, 1981
Witch Mountain, South of Salem, 2011
Cannonball Adderley, Bohemia After Dark, 1955
Cannonball Adderley, Accent on Africa, 1968


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