Autism Awareness Week 2: Seeing Eye to Eye
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Have you ever been on the receiving end of that command? In this culture, eye contact is perceived as a sign of respect and attentiveness. Emotions can flare if we think our conversation partner isn’t listening. We often jump to conclusions, and assume the person is disengaged, nervous, or hiding something. But for children and adults with autism, this is not always true.
If you or a loved one is impacted by autism, you might have questions about eye contact. Should it be required? Is it a learned skill? How far should we push the issue? Below, we’ve included some expert answers from developmental pediatricians, behavior analysts, and psychologists featured on Autism Speaks and the Art of Autism:
1.) Eye contact matters…but it’s complicated. Eye contact is helpful for interpersonal communication and has important social and developmental implications. However, for an autistic person, it is often extremely stressful to make eye contact and results in more distraction, not less.
Eye contact makes me feel threatened. I may not look you in the eye, but that doesn’t mean I’m not taking in what you’re saying.” –Jeanette Purkis, blogger, radio show host
2.) Encourage, but don’t force it. For autistic individuals, eye contact can often feel like sensory overload. “Should we insist on eye contact with those who find it uncomfortable? As with many complex questions, the best answer is probably ‘it depends,'” writes the trio of experts on Autism Speaks. The writers add that it is important to first practice making eye contact in private, non-stressful, non-threatening situations. But remember, “neurotypical” people often break off eye contact when trying to remember or imagine something.
3.) Indirect gaze might actually be better. Recent studies show that autistic individuals often have highly developed peripheral vision. In other words, the image is actually sharper when viewed from the side or corner of the eye: “I recall a parent telling me of her Autistic child walking through a museum looking straight ahead, not at any piece of art directly, and being able to replicate the art she passed with an uncanny precision,” Debra Muzikar, “Eye Contact: Is it Important?”
4.) No eye contact? Maybe more is seen, not less. “Eyes are said to be the windows of the soul. Some are uncomfortable with what they see. Maybe they don’t lack empathy at all but are acutely sensitive. Finn Christie, second grade [said, speaking of a teacher], ‘I saw sad and dark in her eyes. That’s why I couldn’t look at her.” (Muzikar)
“Our wounds and hurts and fears are in our eyes. Humans think they build ‘walls’ for internal privacy. They think eye contact is about honesty but…eye contact is invasive.” CarolAnn Edscorn, author