Do we really need to teach Eye contact?

Many therapists and parents place a lot of emphasis on children making eye contact. The reason for this being that eye contact in our society represents interest, respect, fondness, attention, and engagement.

Let’s look at how an Autistic child processes information so that we can understand from their point of view the challenge of making eye contact.

1. Autistic children process details rather than the whole picture. This means that they will focus on details about your eyes, lashes, eye color etc instead of the whole of your face. This can easily become distracting or cause sensory overload.

2. For many, they process information through one processing channel at a time so either they can look at you OR they listen to you but doing both is very challenging.

3. One of the greatest challenges is the interpretation of non-verbal communication ie. body language and facial expressions.  When they are asked to look at your eyes, the focus now becomes on attempting to interpret facial expressions. This makes conversations overwhelming and the content of your verbal messaged can get lost.

What we ultimately want by asking for eye contact from others is to feel connected and heard. I don’t think that any of us want to replace that with the mere gesture of looking into someone’s eyeballs because it looks more neurotypical when in fact it completely shifted the experience for the Autistic child!

During most conversations, you will notice that when we talk to each other we don’t really look into each others’ eyes. Looking into someone’s eyes is very intimate. We do it occasionally with the purpose of connecting intimately whether in a loving way, or when we’re very upset and trying to make our point clear.

In truth, we never really look in anyone’s eyes when we talk to them. It is actually uncomfortable. We look at their face or in their direction. 

So, to Autistic children, teach whole body listening i.e. your body is facing each other, your eyes are in the direction of the person but you don’t have to look in their eyes.

Be mindful that for some that eye contact is very challenging and it clearly affects their ability to participate in a conversation. Respect that this is how they can truly connect with you.  Don’t force it. 

As children get older, they can learn to tell their audience that they may be looking away because it’s difficult for them to process the conversation while looking straight on at a person.

We need to become more open about different ways of communicating. It doesn’t really matter if someone is looking at the floor if you know that this is what helps them truly connect and stay engaged. Don’t forget that in some societies it is disrespectful to look in someone’s eyes while you talk. Eye contact is really what we make it. Eye contact can be taught, but let’s not teach it at the expense of connection; true human connection.

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Hi, I 'm Nancy

I’m an Occupational Therapist (OT) with more than 18 years of experience and whose greatest passion is working with children of all abilities. 

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