Do you remember your parents telling you, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” demanding you show them respect? Eye contact and autism is a controversial and complex issue. Therapists, educators, and parents often insist autistic people make eye contact with them. They assume that people cannot listen and understand what they are trying to say unless they are making eye contact. Since communication breakdown is a central issue to autism spectrum disorders, parents and professionals naturally feel that eye contact is an important first step to teaching. But anyone who has talked to autistic individuals understands that this issue is more complex than we realize.
How Do Autistic People Feel About Eye Contact?
Eye contact can be uncomfortable, confusing, and even painful for autistic people. Being forced to make eye contact may hinder an autistic’s ability to socialize rather than enhance it, like many therapists assume it will. Unfortunately, in many clinics, classrooms, and homes, eye contact among autistics is a misunderstood phenomenon, and fleeting eye contact is often misinterpreted as disinterest, a lack of focus, or misbehavior. However, some autistics have asserted that the opposite is actually true–that they have to avoid eye contact in order to block out distractions and focus on the message that the speaker is trying to convey.
Rozella Stewart summarized part of the eye contact and autism controversy in an article for the Indiana Resource Center for Autism: “Should We Insist on Eye Contact with People who have Autism Spectrum Disorders?” Stewart explains that “Sometimes getting an individual to ‘make eye contact’ becomes a high priority that falls under the rubric of ‘compliance and direction following’ training.” This becomes a problem if practitioners or parents aren’t sensitive to an individual’s particular issues with eye contact. Autistic adults and their families rarely report that eye contact ever becomes a useful means of communicating. Stewart cites several anecdotes here, one from a man diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome who says, “If you insist that I make eye contact with you, when I’m finished I’ll be able to tell you how many millimeters your pupils changed while I looked into your eyes.”
The Neurological Differences Affecting Eye Contact in Autistics
In Temple Grandin’s 2013 book The Autistic Brain, she discusses the neurological patterns of autistic brains that may explain why autistic people have difficulty with eye contact:
“A 2011 fMRI [functional MRI] study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that the brains in a sample of high-functioning autistics and typically developing individuals seemed to respond to eye contact in opposite fashions. In the neurotypical brain, the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) was active to direct gaze, while in the autistic subject, the TPJ was active to averted gaze. Researchers think that the TPJ is associated with social tasks that include judgments of others’ mental states. The study found the opposite pattern in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: in neurotypicals, activation to averted gaze; in autistics, activation to direct gaze. So it’s not that autistics don’t respond to eye contact, it’s that their response is the opposite of neurotypicals'” (35).
Grandin explains that the study concluded:
“What a neurotypical person feels when someone won’t make eye contact might be what a person with autism feels when someone does make eye contact. And vice versa: What a neurotypical feels when someone does make eye contact might be what an autistic feels when someone doesn’t make eye contact.”
Grandin’s analysis helps neurotypicals understand and empathize more with the experiences of individuals on the spectrum and motivates us to develop more appropriate and effective tools for teaching effective communication.
Practical Solutions for Addressing Eye Contact with Autistics
Brian King, a life coach and author on the spectrum, offers plenty of practical suggestions for teaching effective communication based on his personal experiences. His book Strategies for Building Successful Relationships with People on the Autism Spectrum: Let’s Relate offers alternate solutions to forced eye contact. For example, an autistic person doesn’t have to look someone directly in the eyes, but instead can look to the side or at the ground near another person and nod or speak affirmatively to illustrate understanding and demonstrate he or she is listening.
There are definite advantages to being able to comfortably maintain eye contact in a neurotypical society, such as reading social signals and emotions of other people and establishing positive first impressions and exuding confidence in interviews and job-related tasks; however, the value of these benefits (and others gained from similar therapeutic exercises) must be weighed against the pain of their acquisition. Many autistic people can lead a perfectly happy life without being able to maintain eye contact, and it is irresponsible and patronizing to insist they practice the skill to appear “normal.” Parents, clinicians, or educators requiring eye contact as a means to teaching basic communication have an obligation to assess the individual’s unique social and emotional skills and needs before making potentially unhealthy demands.
I have learned a lot from paying attention to my seven-year-old, and I suspect I will learn more about his needs as he grows and is better able to articulate them. Right now I know that if you ask him to look at you, he will comply for a second and then dart his eyes around and above your face. But he doesn’t need to look at you to listen and communicate. If you call his name, he will look up from what he is doing and stare at the space in front of him as he listens intently. He will listen to every word and converse appropriately. He will, however, look directly at my eyes and face when he is trying to confirm whether or not I am speaking to him or when everyone is laughing about something and he is trying to figure out what the joke is so he can join the laughter.
An Example: What I’ve Learned From My Son About Eye Contact
Below are some guidelines that I think are appropriate for my son. Every autistic person will have unique socialization needs, so I am only listing these as an example and to pose potential ideas for other families with children who have similar needs.
- Tell him to look at you.
- Say that you know he isn’t listening because he isn’t looking at you.
- Assume he is avoiding your gaze because he is in a power struggle with you and is acting defiant.
- Assume that if he has complied with an order to look at you, then he is more apt to understand your message.
- Ask if he is listening to you.
- Speak slightly slower than average.
- Use his name as a prompt to let him know you want him to listen.
- Direct his attention to your arm or hand so he knows you want to point at something for him to see.
- Ask him to talk about how he recognizes other people’s emotions (or ask him to identify different emotions in other people) so you are better aware of how he perceives and interprets the world around him.
Additional Resources Addressing Eye Contact and Autism
Below are a few links to additional resources with insight about eye contact and autism from individuals on the spectrum:
From Amythest Schaber:
And from the neurotypical world: