Should we insist on eye contact from autistic children?
Making eye contact has been a long debate in the autism community. Eye contact is a necessary skill for navigating social landscapes at work and school. Lack of eye contact is one of the hallmarks of autism, but should we insist on it? Why do children find it difficult to make eye contact? A new study, published in November in the American Journal of Psychiatry, has added more context to this hotly debated topic.
Autistic toddlers are better at making eye contact on command
The study, entitled Mechanisms of Diminished Attention to Eyes in Autism, studied two-year-olds with a mix of autism, typical development, and developmental delays, and their responses to both direct, and implicit cues to make eye contact.
Interestingly, this study found that when cued to look someone in the eyes, an autistic child, “did not look away faster than did typically developing children; their latency varied neither categorically nor dimensionally by degree of eye cueing.” In fact, the study found that when told their task was to look someone in the eyes, the children with autism were better at sustained eye-contact than neurotypical children.
It was the implicit eye cues that autistic children did not register.
“These results go against the idea that young children with autism actively avoid eye contact,” said the study’s leader Warren Jones told Science Daily, who is also the director of research at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia. “They’re looking less at the eyes not because of an aversion to making eye contact, but because they don’t appear to understand the social significance of eye contact.”
Eye contact in social situations as a learned skill
Understanding this study is important because the research says children aren’t looking away due to an aversion, but rather because they don’t understand that making eye contact is a part of good social skills. We may need to adapt interventions to assist with eye contact in the context of social skills, with the understanding that eye contact itself is not the issue. It’s the social cues that are difficult for those with autism.
While some people with autism do express real discomfort in having to make eye contact itself, perhaps with early intervention and learning around understanding social cues, many others would be able to adapt to general social expectations around eye contact.
Ways to help your child learn to make eye contact
1)Use praise whenever your child does inadvertently look you in the eyes. There is a good article entitled, 5 Things to Say to your Special Needs Child Each Day, that talks about when and how to praise, and offers specific examples.
2)If your child is old enough, explain WHY eye contact is important. Be specific about where and when to use it ie: we look people in the eyes when they are speaking to us; we wait until they have finished speaking to look away. Liam says “Hi”, is a great resource we have in our bookstore for younger children, and, The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment is good for teens and older.
3) Be patient and don’t get frustrated. Eye contact is a learned skill for many on the autism spectrum. It will take time to learn, but the rewards are many both for you and your child with autism.
Fortunately there are many resources available to help address learning social skills, and now that eye contact may be considered one of them, they could be adapted to include eye contact as well.
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