Eye contact has a significant place in nonverbal communication behavior. It often means and indicates that people would like to communicate with other individuals. Also, eye contact is important in catching and responding to social cues from other people.
Not making eye contact can generally be deemed as:
- lack of empathy,
- lack of interest,
- lack of connection to people.
However, one of the hallmark signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is that individuals generally avoid making eye contact. This behavior presents itself even when the individual is an infant. At early ages, they lack eye contact behavior.
The question of why this is the case has been here for a long time. There has been a lot of debate and research on why individuals with autism do not make eye contact.
Is it because autistic individuals are not interested in what others are saying? Or are there scientific explanations?
Several findings are available to shine a light on the topic.
Does poor eye contact definitely mean autism?
The fact that individuals with autism avoid eye contact has been widely researched. At first, it was thought that the failure of eye contact resulted from lack of interest. However, studies revealed that avoiding the practice is not a sign of “not caring”. This was also found in the statements of individuals with autism who had difficulty in making eye contact.
For individuals with typical development, avoiding eye contact is generally deemed as a sign of social indifference. However, many autistic people indicate that eye contact causes them discomfort and stress.
They claim that it is difficult and unnatural for them to express their feelings over anxiety. Studies looked into the source of the behavior to determine whether this is caused by the sensation itself or due to social delays.
It was discovered by the researchers that a part of the brain activated by eye contact, which is called the subcortical system was abnormally activated in those on the autism spectrum.
This area of the brain is responsible for triggering babies’ natural attraction to faces or help them turn towards faces they find familiar.
Subcortical system also helps people perceive emotions. In the studies they conducted, researchers had people with and without autism look at images of faces.
They tracked the gaze of the participants. Participants either freely looked at the faces or they were restricted to seeing only the eye area of the images. While looking at the entire face, the brain activities of both groups were found to be similar.
However, when autistic individuals were shown only the eye area, their subcortical brain system was overactivated.
Lack of eye contact in autistic individuals was found to be a response to an uncomfortable sensation the individual felt. This behavior is determined to be a way to decrease the unpleasing excessive arousal that is caused by this part of the brain.
Lack of eye contact in toddlers and children
Lack of eye contact does not have one single cause. There may be a lot of reasons why a child might not engage in eye contact. This does not mean that the child has autism. A child may not make eye contact because they may:
- dislike the person who is attempting to make an eye contact,
- have an unnoticed hearing problem,
- feel social anxiety or shyness.
In the case of children with autism, avoidance of eye contact can stem from other reasons. There is no definitive cause revealed by the studies, but there are a few ideas indicating why autistic children may lack eye contact.
Children with autism often do not prompt other children to make eye contact. They are not inclined with social motivation similar to children with typical development.
In addition, autistic children may find more than one social stimulus overwhelming. They may not be able to focus both on spoken language and on other people’s eyes at the same time.
Children with autism may not understand the social cues from a person’s eyes. They may not be able to understand that watching a person’s eye may also provide information.
Eye contact can, therefore, be very intense and overwhelming in terms of sensory experience. They may feel overwhelmed and stressed, and avoid the practice.
In conclusion, children with autism generally
- don’t have the social motivation to make eye contact,
- find it difficult to focus on both spoken language and another person’s eyes,
- may not understand the information that can be obtained from looking at eyes,
- may be overwhelmed by the intense sensory experience.
Why is eye contact difficult and distressing for individuals with autism?
The question why individuals with autism avoid or have reduced eye contact has been asked for a long time. Studies debunked the theory that lack of eye contact indicates an indifference and lack of empathy.
Since autistic children cannot convey what they want or feel through making eye contact, it is difficult to engage with them. Some of the research did not suggest uncomfortable sensation in children with autism when they were subjected to eye contact.
However, the results of the studies are enough to rethink the consequences of coercing them to practice the behavior.
During their therapies, sometimes children with autism are forced to look into someone’s eye so as to complete their task. However, forcing autistic children into making eye contact may create a lot of anxiety for them.
Instead of forcing children with autism into making eye contact, it has to be a slow process of getting used to the concept. This may be a more appropriate manner to help them handle the process of eye contact without causing stress. In this way, the impact that avoiding eye contact has on the social brain can also be avoided.
Society should also understand the reasons for avoiding eye contact by individuals on the autism spectrum. Understanding that eye contact can actually create physical and psychological discomfort would help other people see the complexities of facial expressions for such individuals.
This way, others in society could understand that lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean that the person with autism is rude or indifferent.
Alternative ways to engage with children with autism
When given the chance, it is possible to interact and communicate with individuals with autism. There are books and articles written by adults with autism who described the stress they felt when they were forced to make eye contact during their interactions.
They stated that they were distracted by these attempts. Sometimes this insistence on making eye contact caused them to lose focus.
So as to assess how to approach the eye contact issue, the first thing you can do is to explore how your child reacts to the practice. It may not be productive to push eye contact if it makes your child’s therapy more difficult.
The practice may even be so stressful that your child can pay less attention to the activity. This may call for alternative ways for your child to indicate to you that they are interested in something.
You may engage in nonverbal ways with your child. You can suggest that your child shows interest by fully facing the other person and staying within a conversational distance. This will also work on your child’s tendency to walk away in the middle of a conversation.
You can also teach your child to say certain appropriate expressions that will indicate that they are paying attention. This may be saying “yes” or even “hmm-hmm”. You can teach them to say these phrases when the other person pauses or when they are finished with what they are saying.
This may be helpful when your child engages in a conversation with others without making eye contact, so the other party would have an idea if the child understands them or not.
Moreover, eye contact may not always have a negative impact on children with autism. In some cases, the practice is found to improve attentiveness. If you observe that your child can pay attention better by making eye contact, then engage them to do so.
This skill may be significant in your child’s success in learning. Individualized therapy programs and behavior therapies can be supported by certain activities done at home. There are a variety of approaches adopted by behavioral therapists to encourage and increase eye contact.
How to sensitively encourage eye contact
It is important to teach a new skill in small, manageable steps. Expectations should advance slowly based on the child’s progress. Overwhelming the child into making eye contact at once would only bring about negative impact.
Positive reinforcement on natural and spontaneous eye contact could be one of the methods to be used while teaching the practice.
This could be a private and casual situation where not much is demanded from the child in terms of their attention. In addition, the duration of the eye contact can be increased during conversations.
However, while practicing, you should always keep an eye out for your child’s comfort. There is no point in forcing the practice if it is not helping make any improvement.
In order to get your child to get used to making eye contact, you could try pausing before responding to their requests. For instance, if your child asks you a question or asks for something, pause before responding or offering the thing they want.
This may cause them to glance in your direction to see if you heard them. You can then respond immediately and praise them for making eye contact.
After that, you can work on the length of the eye contact.
You can tell your child how making eye contact encourages people to respond to their requests. You can integrate your child’s favorite subjects into these practices. If they like to talk about a topic, bring it up to get their attention and make eye contact.
By itself, lack of eye contact should not be considered as a certain symptomatic of autism spectrum disorder. There may be infants who may not make eye contact, but in general react to faces and turn their faces towards the others’ face.
However, since early and intensive intervention and therapies are the best option for autism, the caregivers may want to investigate the if the child is under three, does not make eye contact, and has social communication delays.
Also, children with autism may fail to respond to their names, have repetitive and restricted behaviors. At this point, you may want to contact a developmental pediatrician or child psychologist to conduct an evaluation.