Why Is Eye Contact Difficult for Individuals with Autism?

Establishing eye contact should start from birth. While the child is in our lap, changing the diaper, and breastfeeding, the eye contact that we establish strengthens the communication between the baby and parents. No matter how old the child is, parents should make eye contact while talking.

The eye contact, which will be established when talking and motivating the child while telling them what is right and what is wrong, will make a meaningful effect on the child, emotional development and social development. In addition, it provides a better understanding, interpretation, and a sense of self-worth.

If you have looked up the Autism Spectrum Disorder’s symptoms, you have seen a lack of eye contact as a symptom. They have avoidance to make eye contact. This suggests that they are not likely to engage with others not likely to be responsive to people in general.

Disruption in eye contact, in terms of making and maintaining, is one of the predominant characteristics of autism. It shouldn’t be seen only as behavior that disrupts social relations and interactions. However, yes, it is true, problems in eye contact lead to miscommunication among people.

Lack of eye contact, on the other hand, is not as simple as it seems. It is not enough to suggest an appropriate diagnosis. It is, instead, just one of many symptoms and behaviors which demonstrate people have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since there are no blood and imagining tests in order to do this, professionals must rely on the characteristic behaviors of disorder to make a diagnosis.

Recently there is a debate among mental health professionals and scientists about “Do children with autism tend to avoid looking at the eyes of others as they find eye contact unpleasant or they do not interested in eye contact?” In this article, I will try to clarify how this question came about. I will explain one of the most prominent symptoms of autism which is “lack of eye contact” in detail. Then, I will try to expand the topic on the related issues.

In general, individuals with autism find it difficult to make eye contact with other people around them. While this situation is seen as difficulties in social life, interactions, and communication, and also seen as having a problem with themselves, individuals with autism say completely different things about this issue.

Many parents first notice that their child have difficulties in making eye contact if the child has autism. Because as an important step for communication, it significantly affects the lives of children and adults with autism. For this reason, understanding why individuals with autism have difficulty in making eye contact and understanding their experiences are necessary to make life easier for individuals with autism and the people around them.

Children with autism are unaware of social messages in the eyes, and they do not actively and consciously avoid looking at someone else’s eyes. It was kind of a habit for them.

There were a series of studies in order to understand the reasons for the lack of eye contact. In a series of studies, 38 children with no autism diagnosis, 22 children with delayed cognitive language or delayed motor movement, and 26 children with autism were screened. All of them were 2 years old.

The eye movements of children were recorded using eye-tracking technology, while these children were watching videos. The content of the video was as follows.

First of all, it attracts children’s attention with a bell sound and blue and white rings are exhibited on the screen. Then, where the ring is standing, a woman begins to speak in a way that attracts the child’s attention. The ring is moved to cover the eyes of the speaking women on the screen, sometimes moved for covering other toy-like objects on the screen.

As a result, children with autism do not hesitate to look at the woman’s eyes. This explained that eye contact for children with autism is not uncomfortable, as we thought. They avoid making eye contact, probably because of anxiety which comes with it.

According to the results of the video, children with autism tend to take a shorter time to the eyes of the women who are speaking, compared to normally developed children. When the speaker woman makes emotional conversations, normally developed children look at the woman’s eyes longer, since children with autism do not show any change when emotional conversations are made.

Children with an autism spectrum disorder, however, generally seem to avoid eye contact for different reasons. While studies are not absolutely conclusive, findings suggest that;

  • They often lack the usual social motivation that leads normally developed children to make eye contact.
  • They find making eye contact very intense and overwhelming sensory experience.
  • They may find it difficult to focus both on spoken language and on another person’s eyes directly at the same time.
  • They may not understand that watching another person’s eyes is more revealing than, for example, watching that person’s mouth or hands.

Leaving children’s behaviors aside, adolescents and adults with autism say that sometimes eye contact is an intense and unpleasant experience for them.

Avoiding having eye contact, especially while listening to the other side, may suggest that individuals with autism do not give proper importance to the conversation or that their mind is elsewhere. This kind of misunderstanding can have negative consequences for everyone, especially those with autism.

The fact that individuals with autism do not make eye contact does not mean that they have difficulty empathizing. Even it accepted like that, recent studies have found that autism and empathy are not directly related.

Not to make eye contact is not caused by one of the autism’s symptoms which is lack of empathy, it is caused by growing anxiety at such times. In other words, the fact that people with autism lack of eye contact is not a symptom of insensitivity or indifference, but an active refrain from eye-to-eye communication to avoid potential anxiety.

When people with autism look at a face, some parts of their brains are over-stimulated, causing anxiety to increase. For this reason, mental health professionals understand that forcing individuals to make eye contact may have a negative effect on them. Thus, anxiety is becoming more apparent. Instead, people around individuals with autism need to resort to a professionally managed staged process.

It is very important for individuals with autism to decide to get rid of their discomfort with this condition in order to prevent them from turning their eyes away. In this case, professional support can help reduce anxiety throughout the process. The appropriate approach in this regard is to get professional support without directing individuals to find solutions unconsciously.

There was a study that was focused on the brain’s subcortical system responsible for emotional perceptions. This system is activated by eye contact. Differences in subcortical system activation were measured by using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

20 people with autism and 20 normally developed people were involved. They were asked for looking at faces as well as focusing on the eye. When people with autism concentrated on the eyes, there was a brain overactivation.

As a result according to this study, we can say that there is an aversion to direct eye contact in people with autism. These results are a kind of guidance for engaging people with autism more effectively.

If children with autism do not make eye contact because they do not like eye contact, their treatment can be arranged to reduce their discomfort. However, if eye contact for children with autism is an insignificant detail, parents and therapists can help them in order to understand why eye contact is important for social interactions and communication. They help them to understand eye contact makes communication easier and communication makes life easier.

Since lack of eye contact is one of the first signs of autism, also it is part of assessments, screening and diagnostic methods. However, researchers have been discussing the mechanism underlying this situation for a long time.

According to scientists, the lack of interest hypothesis is also consistent with the social motivation theory, which suggests that a wide apathy of social knowledge constitutes the basis of autism. On the other hand, reports taken from individuals with autism suggest that people with autism find eye contact uncomfortable. Studies, which done while people looking at face by following their eye movements, support both hypotheses.

How to Improve Eye Contact Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The most defining characteristic of autism, also known as a communication problem, is the difficulty in establishing and maintaining a relationship which is actually the main element of communication. The starting point of communicating with people is “to look” at first, in other words, to establish eye contact. Firstly, to teach the child the ability to make eye contact will help to make them ready for the learning environment and how to communicate.

Here are some tips to help families to teach their children for making eye contact;

  • You should make sure that your child is seated to see your face.
  • You should give your child a “look at me” instruction every 5 or 10 seconds.
  • You should bring a lightening object first by grabbing a child’s attention, then you can bring the object towards your own eye level and close the light.
  • You should make sound by keeping the sound toys close to your own face.
  • You should make your child jump on your lap by saying their name.
  • You can draw the child’s attention to your eyes with an eye-blinking gesture with noticeably stained eyelids.
  • You can draw the child’s attention by playing the peekaboo game.
  • You may encourage the child to look at you by calling the child by name and holding their favorite toy or food close to your eyes.
  • If your child wants something without looking at you, you should not give it to them without establishing eye contact. You have to wait until the child looks at you even for a couple of moments.
  • 2 seconds after you give the instruction, at least if the child looked at your face for 1 second has shown that the child demonstrates desired behavior which is making eye contact.
  • If your child has reacted correctly by perceiving your instructions, you should give them favorite food or toy as a reward.

  • If you cannot observe the desired behavior which is establishing eye contact after the instruction, you can keep your child’s chin to look at your face.
  • If your child does not look at your face 2 seconds after giving the instruction, you can give the same instruction after 5 seconds in another direction.
  • If the child is not looking at you when you say “look at me”, you should give your child the instruction directly by pointing out. At the same time, you can repeat the instruction by shaking a favorite toy or by showing favorite food.
  • If you set the eye contact 10 times at 2-second intervals, you should gradually and systematically reduce your signaling help and slowly stop moving the object in your hand.
  • When you want to increase your child’s eye contact time, you should be a little slow in giving your reward. Count up to 2 before giving a reward, then increase this period gradually (3 sec., 5 sec, etc.). So the child will learn that he/she needs to look at you in more times.
  • When you are sure that the children are learning about eye contact behavior, you should cut the reward at that point.

In order for these activities to be successful, the following points should be taken into consideration.

  • It will be easy to take control of eye contact training if you start to put your child a seat.
  • You should remove any stimuli that may distract the child’s attention in the environment such as disturbing sounds, shining object, TV, etc.
  • You should eliminate the physical needs of the child such as food, sleep, toilet, etc.
  • You can take care to do these activities in routine times and places, for example, it could be done at the table in the living room after breakfast.
  • You can use your child’s favorite object as a reinforcer when the moment you establish to eye contact with your child. You should repeat this behavior every time the child establish eye contact. It is important to remember that caress the child’s head, smiling, and saying well done are reinforcers and you can use them for developing a longer period of eye contact.
  • Making eye contact should be generalized in daily life. For this purpose, the child should be called with the name at every opportunity, and then you should come to the eye level of the child, and eye to eye studies should be done.
  • Also, after teaching to look at you while the child is sitting in the chair, make sure they look at you in different situations such as standing, in the kitchen, in the garden, etc.
  • Every time your child with autism achieves to establish eye contact in daily life, such as while before sleeping, hair combing, etc., you will see that the behavior is becoming more frequent when you immediately reinforce this behavior.
  • If your child is able to perform an eye contact after these steps, in other words, if you call your child and your child now looks at you, you will be successful at the child’s social interaction and communication by taking the first and most important step of this process.

The more fun and entertaining you are, the better the eye contact will be established. Pairing yourself with reinforcement will help eye contact.

Pairing means that you should pair yourself or associate yourself with the reinforcement and pairing turns you into a reinforcer. In the end, it provides improved compliance and instructional control.

Eye contact, as well as smiles, will be better if you are the giver of things that the child with autism wants or desires. There is a trick that you can use if you are the one. When you are giving something to the child if they want something is to hold it up not to your eyes but to your mouth.

Then, you should say the word what that is a couple of times. At first, the child will look at your mouth but after times he/she stars to look at your whole face. Gradually, he/she starts to make eye contact to ask for something.

Moreover, if the child with autism likes books, looking at the pictures on the book can be great for this process. You can use pop-up books because if the child is not as interested in books as these are often more interesting. Also, DVDs and TV shows can be useful for teaching them in order to look and to scan.

In addition to books and TV, quick puzzles would be beneficial too. You can start with their special interest using quick puzzles where they just need to look quickly to complete the puzzle and then build it up.

Furthermore, there are some applications that you can use in order to improve the child’s eye contact. Because, although children with autism suffer from eye contact, they are good with digital devices. This is a feature that allows children with autism to improve themselves in eye contact by using cameras of digital devices. Children with autism who are using the application can improve their facial recognition capabilities through smart cameras.

You cannot expect the child to look at your face if you are too far away from the child. The situation is the same if you expect the child to understand language. Because of this reason, you should get down to the child’s eye level as much as possible when you talk with them.

Fun activities with parents will result in establishing better eye contact. For example, you can engage a child in active and fun activities by pushing them on a swing, bouncing the child on a ball or even blowing bubbles could be helpful for you. All of these activities you want to be in front of the child with autism at their level or preferable eye level as much as possible to pair up these fun activities.

On the other hand, according to mental health professionals, forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioral therapy may create lots of anxiety for them. Otherwise, slow habituation to eye contact may help children with autism to overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run.

Best Strategies to Encourage Eye Contact

  • Parents should model appropriate eye contact with their child. They should always turn in order to look at their child while talking with them.
  • Parents should bring objects, mostly toys, up to eye level in order to encourage their child to look. Initially, the child with autism may only look at the objects, but gradually some eye contact will emerge.
  • If the child with autism is cooperative and understands what parents mean, parents could say “look at me.”
  • Parents sometimes gently touch the child’s chin for a reminder to look. However, they have to remember not to drag the child’s face round to make them look.
  • Parents can stand in front of their child when the child is playing, for example, while playing on the rocking horse. Occasionally, parents stop the swing and can say first “ready, set”, then wait a few seconds in the hope that the child may look at parents and then immediately say “go”. As the child turn to look at parents more readily, parents can encourage a vocalization for saying “go”.

  • Parents should not constantly nag the child with “look at me, look at me.” Instead of doing that, they can use a variety of ways to draw the child’s attention and gain eye contact.
  • Some children with autism feel more comfortable and less stressed when they engaged in gross motor activity. Those children may establish spontaneous eye contact during these activities.
  • As the most important point, all spontaneous or nonspontaneous eye contacts should be rewarded with only words or sometimes with toys.

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