Eye contact is a nonverbal behavior that most people use without even thinking about it when they are interacting with others. It’s an automatic behavior for most people. They typically never have to think about or practice how to look at others, where to look, when to look away, and everything that comes with making eye contact. If your child is avoiding eye contact, this could indicate autism or ASD. However, this can also be a result of different factors unrelated to autism, like hearing problems, social anxiety, etc. Speak with a behavioral therapist to see if the lack of eye contact is a result of autism or ASD.
Why is eye contact hard in autism?
For many people with autism, making eye contact can be very difficult. As a parent, an educator, or a therapist, it can be challenging to know how to approach the situation when you are caring for or working with a child with autism who doesn’t make eye contact like typically developing children might.
This is particularly true because, for some children with autism, making eye contact with others can cause extreme distress and be very uncomfortable for them. It can also be a case where the child simply prefers interacting with others in ways that don’t require them to make eye contact. They’d rather look at something else in their environment while communicating with the other person.
Why is eye contact important?
First, let’s consider why eye contact is a helpful skill to have. Eye contact can help someone to communicate with others. Making eye contact with another person during a conversation can show the other person that you are interested in what they have to say and that you care about being in the conversation and being with that person at that moment. It shows that you are paying attention, as well.
Also, by making eye contact, you can pick up on certain social cues. You can use what you see in the way someone’s eyes look to help learn more about that person’s experience, such as what they are trying to communicate or what they are feeling.
Without making eye contact with someone when they are trying to communicate with you, that person might feel like you aren’t interested in what they have to say or that you aren’t even listening to them.
This experience is common in many social situations from a teacher not thinking a student is listening to them when the student is not looking at them to a spouse feeling like their partner isn’t listening or paying attention when the partner is looking at his phone or at something other than his or her spouse.
There are, of course, lots of other examples, where not making the occasional eye contact with someone could be interpreted as lack of interest, lack of attention, or lack of consideration for the communication partner.
How can I help my child improve eye contact?
There are some mixed messages about whether we should even try to get a child with autism to make eye contact with others and, if we should, what is the best, most compassionate, and ethical way to go about helping them improve this skill.
Despite the ways that making eye contact with others can be helpful for the purposes of communication and enhancing a relationship, making eye contact can be very stressful for some children and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Making eye contact can be even more uncomfortable when a child feels like they are being forced to make eye contact when someone is pressuring them to make eye contact and they aren’t choosing to do so willingly on their own terms.
Some children and adults with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) can learn to make eye contact to some degree but forcing them or trying to pressure them into doing so is likely not the best way to go about helping them to improve their ability and willingness to make eye contact with others.
Looking at Something Else: An Alternative to Eye Contact
One thing that individuals with autism learn to do to help them compensate for the discomfort they feel when making eye contact is to look at something other than the communication partner’s face while the social interaction is going on. Ideally, the individual with autism has an activity to do that allows them to look at something other than the communication partner entirely while still being able to have a conversation and show interest and attention toward the other person.
An example of this is when a student in school can focus better on what the teacher is teaching when the student is looking at and fidgeting with an object, such as a fidget toy or a pencil or doodling on a piece of paper.
Another example of when someone might be able to engage in social interaction more effectively even without making eye contact is when a child is playing with and looking at his toys while someone else is talking to him. Even though he doesn’t look at the person and he especially doesn’t make eye contact, he might still be able to participate in a conversation and show interest in what the other person is communicating.
And a third example of this is when two children can sit side-by-side playing video games and can have a conversation but, when they aren’t engaged in an activity and are simply sitting near each other or when they are facing each other, the child is extremely uncomfortable and isn’t able to participate in the conversation.
Consider the Individual Child
It is important to consider the individual child when deciding if you should help them make eye contact with people. Be sure to consider how the child feels or what they experience when they do attempt to make eye contact. Does it make them anxious? Does it make them uncomfortable?
Does the child verbally express themselves more effectively when they aren’t making eye contact or worrying about making eye contact and, instead, they are engaging in another activity during the social interaction?
So, again, remember to approach the topic of teaching children with autism to make eye contact cautiously and always consider why working on this is good for the child.
When It’s a Good Idea to Work on Eye Contact with Your Child
There are certainly times when helping a child make eye contact with others is a good idea. For instance, some children get very focused on what it is they are doing and when someone else is talking to them while they are engaged with their activity, they may not listen to the other person very well as compared to if they would make eye contact.
Even simply glancing at a person’s face or a point on the person’s face other than their eyes and then looking away can help the child pay attention to the communication partner and to participate in the social interaction more effectively.
Behavioral Innovations staff can help determine when, how, and if your child could improve their ability to make eye contact with others. Contact us today.
Tips for Improving Your Child’s Eye Contact
There is no one way to approach helping children work on eye contact. Be sure to consider the needs and functioning of the child you are caring for or working with when addressing eye contact. We’ll discuss a few tips for how you might address eye contact with children with autism.
1. Reinforce Naturally Occurring Incidents of Eye Contact
One approach to helping children make eye contact with others is to recognize when it happens naturally. By providing reinforcement for times when the child does make eye contact with others, you can help your child to make eye contact more often in the future.
One thing you could do to attempt to reinforce your child’s eye contact is by saying something like, “Thanks for looking at me when I was talking.”
2. Have Conversations About Your Child’s Favorite Subjects
Engaging in a conversation about a topic your child is interested in is another way you can attempt to reinforce your child making eye contact with you. For instance, while your child talks about his favorite subject, whether that’s superheroes or trains, or any other topic, you can look at him and participate in the conversation. The simple act of engaging in the conversation and showing your child you are interested in what he is saying about his favorite subject may help reinforce his eye contact with you.
With that being said, your child should have at least some tendencies to make eye contact, meaning they should make eye contact with you at least occasionally in order for you to use this strategy to get them to make eye contact more often.
3. Model Making Eye Contact
Related to this strategy is modeling making eye contact with others during social interactions. If children see you and others making eye contact during conversations, they are more likely to make eye contact when they interact with others. If they see you and other people looking at their phone or looking away from someone who is talking to them, they are likely to pick up on that type of behavior.
4. Shape the Behavior
You can also use shaping to get your child to make eye contact more. This strategy is also helpful for getting your child to learn other types of body language that communicate an interest in the communication partner, attention to the speaker, and other attributes of typical social interactions.
To use shaping, you should try to get your child to make tiny steps closer to the end goal of engaging in a conversation or social interaction in a way that you would like to see.
For example, if a child tends to look down at the floor or whatever they are doing and rarely looks toward someone when they are talking, you can try to reinforce them turning their head or their body just a little in the direction of the speaker. Then, reinforce the child turning completely toward the speaker even if they still look down and not at the speaker. Then, you can reinforce your child tilting their head up for one second toward the speaker one time during the conversation. Then, try to get the child to glance at a part of the speaker’s face, such as at their chin. Continue this process until your child glances at the speaker’s eyes one time during the conversation. And, continue working on this until your child can make eye contact, at least to some degree, during the conversation.
Remember to stay aware of how your child is experiencing this so as not to create unnecessary distress.
5. Help Your Child be Comfortable Learning to Make Eye Contact
It can be best to work on making eye contact with your child and people he or she knows well, such as a parent or a sibling, before trying to get them to work on making eye contact with others in their daily life, such as a teacher, or even a stranger like a cashier at a store. Knowing with whom and when to expand your child’s eye contact skills should be based on your child’s individual needs and experiences.
6. Pause to Encourage Eye Contact
One strategy you might try to get your child to look toward you and possibly to make eye contact is to pause after they ask you for something. For instance, if your child says, “Can I have some juice?” instead of just handing it to him, wait a moment and see if he looks at you. You can prompt him to look your way if it makes sense for him.
7. Use Visual Supports
You can also use visual supports to help increase your child’s tendency to make eye contact with people. A visual support can be a gesture that you do to get your child to look toward your eyes. To do this, you’d point your finger from your child’s line of sight toward your eye to get him to look in your direction. You might also use a picture icon that represents looking at someone and then provide it to your child to remind him to look at someone.
Helping Kids with ASD Make Eye Contact
Making eye contact with others can be a useful skill in everyday life. However, it is not always necessary. And it shouldn’t be something that you pressure a child into doing. Be sure to consider your child’s needs, preferences, and individualized goals when helping them to improve their ability to make eye contact with others.
Why is it hard for people with autism to make eye contact? Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/why-it-so-hard-someone-autism-make-eye-contact.