Eye contact is an important social skill that many of us pick up early in life. It can help us engage and stay focused. However, in a child with autism it can be one of the most difficult things to learn. It is also one of the first signs to look for when trying to determine if your child is autistic.
When talking to Konner, he doesn’t want to look you in the eyes very much. However, he has gotten much better at this. It seems now that it just depends on what he’s doing, if he’s over stimulated, or if he needs something. If he’s playing with something or watching television then it’s nearly impossible to get him to look at me; then again that can be said of any child I suppose. If he’s over stimulated, and I really want to try and calm him down, this can be a tough task too.
However, if he really needs something and wants to ask for help, or if he has something he wants to talk about he will come to me and look me in the eye. He knows that this is the best way to get my attention. In fact, he’s even started coming to me and saying, “Dad, I want to tell you something.” That may sound small to a parent of a neurotypical child, but anyone with an autistic child knows this a huge breakthrough.
This hasn’t just happened overnight though. It has taken all his therapists and family working with him to get him to this point, and we’re not done yet.
So I began to wonder why people on the spectrum have issues with eye contact. I read a great book, which I highly recommend to anyone affected by Autism, called “Look Me in the Eye” by John Elder Robison. He found out that he has Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 40. By that time he had overcome many of the social issues that come with the disorder, and had become a very successful businessman. One of the issues that he had as a child was looking adults in the eyes. Robison explained that his father thought he was lying or hiding something because he wouldn’t look at him when he talked to him. Others thought he was “shifty or evasive”. He was accused of being a criminal or bad element.
He states: “I would squirm and continue looking at the floor, which would just make them madder. I would glance up at their hostile faces and feel squirmier and more uncomfortable and unable to form words, and I would quickly look away…I didn’t know why they were getting agitated. I didn’t even understand what looking someone in the eye meant. And yet I felt ashamed, because people expected me to do it.
His explanation: “…I find visual input to be distracting. When I was younger, if I saw something interesting I might begin to watch it and stop speaking entirely. As a grown-up, I don’t usually come to a complete stop, but I may still pause if something catches my eye. That’s why I usually look somewhere neutral …when I’m talking to someone.”
A week ago I stumbled upon a video by Mathew Ryan Morin, a teenager with Autism. In the video (http://thautcast.com/drupal5/content/watch-mathew-ryan-morin-eye-contact) he explains his feelings about eye contact.
He states: “For me, it feels like I’m using up a lot of energy. The longest I can look at someone in the eye is less than 2-6 seconds. Then it gets tiring. It often feels like I’m being blocked mentally from giving eye contact. Something stops me. Something is forcing me not to make eye contact. At one time I used to get a feeling of embarrassment when making eye contact. I used to feel like someone was seeing right through me. It felt weird.
A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that some children see even the most familiar faces as a threat. This states that they are threatened by eye contact because they are scared, even by their own parents.
So what can you do to help? Morin and Robison both have said that they just had to practice. Morin said that he will try for a couple seconds, take a break, and then try for a few more seconds.
As a parent it also takes work. We have to force the issue, but not too hard. If I really need to talk to Konner I will ask him, “Where are Daddy’s eyes?” It has taken some time, but he will usually look at me now. It may take a few seconds, and if he’s really distracted I will usually get a glance out of the corner of his eyes. I also have to turn off the television if that is his distraction (thank goodness we have DVR and can just pause what he’s watching).
Ehow.com has some really good advice on this at: http://www.ehow.com/how_2064753_establish-eye-contact-children-autism.html. Among the suggestions are reward system, get on the child’s level, and keep notes (this helps to know if there is progress). These are only a few things, but you must work hard with a child.
No matter what you do, you have to push the child. So what is too hard? Well, if you push an autistic child too much you will spark a meltdown. Find that limit and stay within it.
Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.