They say – Eyes are windows to the soul but some are uncomfortable with what they see in there.
“Ethan, look at me and say Hi”.
“Arvi”… “Nice job looking at me, here is your toy!”.
“Nice job looking at me and saying good morning!”.
These are some common phrases we hear during therapy sessions of children on autism spectrum.
Eye contact is considered as one of most important nonverbal communication behaviors that suggests interest in social interaction. It also shows that one is paying attention to what is being said.
Absence of or limited eye contact is so pervasive among individuals on the spectrum that it is one of the diagnostic criterion for the disorder. It is such a common social behavior that most people do not understand why making eye contact is so difficult for this population. If an individual is not making eye contact when we are talking to him, we doubt if he has understood the instruction or heard what we have said. Often, if a child on the spectrum greets without eye contact we either feel offended or take it as he is not interested in greeting us. Some individuals who do make eye contact upon insistence have it as a staring gaze than as a communicative exchange. Some gradually learn to make eye contact as their comfort and competency increases in social situations. All in all, eye contact is not a natural skill that develops in this population.
Teachers are trained to get child’s attention before giving instruction and to recapture attention to task during therapy session if their demeanor suggests waning attention. To do that we mostly hear them cuing “look at me” assuming that the child is paying attention and understanding the instruction if he makes eye contact and cannot be paying attention if he does not make eye contact. Getting eye contact sometimes becomes a power struggle between the teacher and the child with teacher getting more insistent about it and the child more reluctant about it. Demanding that an individual make eye contact may have more to do with making the speaker feel heard and shows no understanding of actual experience for the individual in question. They often have to tune one sense down in order to give another sense more focus. A lot of individuals are able to focus more on what you are saying when they are not looking at you because making eye contact is so over stimulating for them that they cannot really attend to anything else.
Many individuals on the spectrum have unusually developed peripheral vision. I know one student who would be walking straight in the hall way without looking sideways but could tell exactly what was written on the notice boards outside all the classrooms.
A lot of individuals have given their reasons as to why it is difficult for them to give eye contact:
“Eye contact has been a problem throughout my life. My best thought about it is you can have my attention or you can have my eye contact, you cannot have both. If I am looking at you I am noticing things about your face and that is where my attention is focused, I am not listening to a word you are saying. Conversely if I am paying attention to what you are saying my eyes may be closed,”
“My eyes take pictures of the things I see, and I can mentally go back and revisit these pictures in my mind for a very long time. If I look into your eyes for too long, I become overcome with so many pictures of your eyes. It is overwhelming, and I have to look away to give my mind something else to process.”
“When I make eye contact, the world around me blocks out. I can only process the immense pain and discomfort that comes to my brain. This pain goes if I look away.”
So, should eye contact be insisted upon?
Eye contact and autism are a very controversial and complex issue but in my opinion it should NOT ALWAYS be insisted upon.
Eye contact is socially appropriate but can be hugely uncomfortable for some. It is imperative to understand idiosyncratic ways in which individuals take in and process information. If you see that an individual’s attention and responsiveness is better with eye contact then demanding eye contact is necessary. However, we also need to realize how conventional social expectation can interfere with learning. Guiding individuals in focusing and engaging in tasks specifically related to the activity at hand is often more effective than trying to obtain attention through eye contact and then expecting that the person can quickly shift attention to a set of task-related stimuli.
Instead of insisting upon looking into the eye during social interactions teach them to orient their bodies towards the speaker or look at other parts of the face like forehead, bridge of the nose, lips.
Teach them to give initial eye contact when a person starts interacting with them and then look away to concentrate on they are saying, not insisting on maintaining it throughout the interaction.
Get to their eye level while talking to young children and “catch their eye” instead of constantly badgering them with “look at me”.
Forcing individuals with autism to look someone in the eye may cause lot of stress and anxiety for them. Instead, slow habituation towards eye contact may be a more appropriate way to deal with it in the long run.