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Our society needs to reassess the relationship between autism and eye contact. Forcing children with autism to make eye contact can often be more harmful than good.

I walked up to the door of my 7-year-old client’s home and rang the doorbell. Behind the window curtains, I could see a shadow of a small child coming toward me. He unlocked the door and opened it for me. Suddenly, he ran to his mom and buried his face in her stomach while hugging her waist. He would not look at me. His mother enthusiastically said, “Nathan, say hi to Crystal! She’s here to play with you!”

autism and eye contact

fightingautism.org – http://fightingautism.org/idea/autism.php Chart showing the increase in autism diagnosis, with statistics based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Nathan quickly waved his hand but kept his face hidden. I knew that when I took data on his approach on greeting others, I would have to jot down “incorrect”. He lacked eye contact while greeting me like any other person is “supposed” to do. But he had autism and people with autism usually have a difficult time making eye contact. He would have to go through the discomfort of making eye contact every time I, and other instructional aides, visited for in-home therapy sessions. I felt that it was very unfair to give a him a non-passing score on something he was not comfortable doing.

It can become so stressful for people with autism to make eye contact that they can experience a great amount of anxiety. Someone with autism can become focused on the stress and anxiety caused by eye contact instead of the conversation. In an Indiana University report, one person with autism explained his troubles with eye contact: “It does not come naturally to me and I do not appreciate having to give it all the time, especially to people that I do not know. All the stress that is put on doing it makes me more nervous, tense, and scared. Doing it also assumes that I can read the message in another person’s eyes. Don’t count on it! I can look at a person’s eyes and not be able to tell what they are saying to me…”

People without autism also struggle with the discomfort of making eye contact, so why does society put a tremendous amount of pressure on children with autism to make eye contact? PsychologyToday.com pointed out a great example of what people without autism experience: when non-autistic people are on elevators they usually face the door to reduce the uneasiness of their personal space being occupied. So, if people without autism already find it challenging to make eye contact, why is it a big deal if Nathan could not look at me in the eye while he waved hello?

I knew eye contact was a goal in Nathan’s social skills program that I had to implement but I felt that I was just creating a mindless robot. He would be forced to greet me and not be able to understand why he could not just wave his hand without considering my eyes.

autistic girl

14 Year old girl with autism by Linsenhejhej (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eye-contact should not be forced when it causes children unnecessary stress and anxiety. One special educator, Marilyn Lauer, said “I have known people from other cultures around the world where eye contact is a sign of disrespect. I have taught many of my students with autism that they can ‘check in with their eyes’ or with their heads (nod) or with their voice (say ‘uh huh’) so that I know they are listening.”

Dr. Susan Fletcher-Watson, from Development Autism Research Society, or DART, at the University of Edinburgh, said on a Huffington Post article, “There’s no real evidence that improving eye-contact leads to better friendships or real world adjustment. If eye contact makes the neurotically community feel more comfortable, maybe it is our responsibility instead to learn to adapt to the interactive style of autistic people. If we’re so ‘socially skilled,’ then why are we so bad at doing this?”     

The answer to the question of how important eye contact is for people with autism is difficult to answer as it “depends” on the person. If a child with autism can learn how to improve on this social skill, then they should practice, but if a child feels that it is too stressful to do so then their comfort should be respected. Especially if they respond better by not looking in someone’s eyes. Society needs to start learning when eye contact for children with autism is effective and when it is more harmful than good.

Do you know any children with autism and do they struggle with eye contact?

 

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