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What's The Deal With Eye Contact?

What's The Deal With Eye Contact?

Image: zolakoma

Avoiding eye contact is one of the most commonly described features of autism, and yet it’s also one of the most misunderstood. 

What is eye contact? 

There’s so much more to eye contact than just looking at someone’s eyes.

Our faces are designed for reciprocal communication - for both giving and receiving information, so that we can share in a mutually understood message with others. Eye contact helps us to do that in a number of ways, like monitoring the reaction of the other person when we speak and letting them know that we’re paying attention when it’s our turn to listen.

Contrary to popular belief, a lack of eye contact isn’t actually a requirement for the diagnosis of autism. What the DSM does say is that it can be one of the areas in which there’s an impairment in the way nonverbal behaviours are used for social interaction, along with other things like body language and facial expressions. 

That means that it's not just about whether eye contact is made, but how it’s being used:

  • Knowing when and how to initiate it
  • How long to maintain it
  • When and how to disengage
  • Understanding the social rules that govern all of these
  • And then using that knowledge to control social interactions 

In other words, an overly intense and unrelenting gaze is just as significant as no eye contact at all. And, very importantly, being able to use eye contact doesn’t mean that a person isn’t autistic. 

That being said, many autistic people do find eye contact to be challenging or uncomfortable, with some even describing it as excruciating.

Why can it be difficult for some?

It’s overwhelming 

There’s a lot to notice about someone’s eyes when you have the ability to focus on details - the way they move, reflections of light, dilating pupils, blinking eyelids, bloodshot capillaries - not to mention all the other details about the face like eyebrows, teeth and lips that move to rapidly reveal and cover teeth of different shapes and size. That’s a lot of information coming in, and to a system that may already be on the verge of sensory overload the only way to stop the uncomfortable overstimulation is to look away.

It’s tricky to coordinate 

Initiating and maintaining eye contact are complex tasks - there’s input from multiple sensory channels to process, social rules to remember, language to interpret and respond to. These require the ability to multi-task and shift attention quickly, which are two areas that can be a struggle for autistic kids in particular.

It’s confusing 

The rules about when and how to make appropriate eye contact are subtle, complicated and rarely taught in any explicit or concrete way. So if you’re someone who finds social nuances difficult to understand, the anxiety about getting it right and the risk of getting it wrong can be so stressful that it’s more appealing to avoid it altogether.

It’s not appropriate 

Some autistic people experience face blindness (difficulty in remembering or recognizing faces), and nobody feels comfortable making sustained eye contact with strangers or those they don’t know well.

It’s not rewarding 

Our faces are built to communicate a wide range of information but for those who find it difficult to read facial expressions, to understand the message they convey or match them up to emotions, this information isn’t always useful. In fact it can be an overwhelming distraction from interpreting other important information like language.

It’s scary

The amygdala is a part of the brain that processes memories related to emotional events, making sure that we remember both the good stuff and the scary so that when we see it again we’ll know how to react. Researchers have known for a while that the amygdala seems to play a part in autism, with differences in structure and activity in this region that they haven’t yet been able to fully explain - such as the interesting discovery that neurological responses and eye movements seem to indicate that some autistic people find it threatening to look at faces.

A first-hand account 

Eye contact is really, really tough for me. It's uncomfortable and unsettling (at times even painful), and being forced to meet someone's gaze leaves me feeling extremely exposed and vulnerable. Also when someone is talking I can concentrate much better on the verbal input by shutting out the visual input from their face.

As a young girl I would cope with all that by looking away from faces and down at the ground, which led to the assumption that I was inattentive, guilty, shy or lacking in confidence. The solution to all of these was always the same - to ‘look people in the eye’ - which just left me feeling even less confident and sociable. 

Over the years I’ve learned to manage by focusing almost solely on someone’s mouth as they talk, with a few quick glances at the eyes so I don’t appear rude. As a result I’ve become an excellent lip reader (which comes in really handy when you want to watch TV in a crowded airport).

Is making eye contact important?

Avoiding eye contact can sometimes make reciprocal communication challenging and create opportunities for misunderstandings - missing important cues and context, seeming disinterested or misreading emotions.

But although eye contact can be an effective non-verbal communication tool, it’s far from being the only one. There are plenty of other ways to interact and connect with someone without meeting their gaze.

There are also many situations in which avoiding eye contact is a typical and functional behaviour. In many cultures it's considered rude or aggressive to meet someone's gaze, for example, and it’s also normal human behaviour to look away while thinking or trying to solve a complex problem.

Eye contact is an incredibly intimate and personal way to communicate. Forcing someone to do it when they find it unpleasant or overwhelming is akin to making them sit still while you yell directly into their ear. The resulting stress and hyper-arousal can seriously interfere with information processing - making effective communication more difficult, not easier.

How can you help?

The goal for helping someone who prefers to avoid eye contact is to reduce their anxiety and discomfort, and there are lots of ways that you can do that.

Don’t demand or force it
 

For people who find it uncomfortable to make eye contact, it can be extremely comforting to know upfront that they don’t have to. So let people do it on their own terms - never grab someone’s chin or say ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you’.

Don’t use it as a measure of attention 

Some people can concentrate without needing to look at you - in fact not looking at you might be the thing that’s allowing them to focus on what they hear.

Think about what you’re asking 

“Look at me” is a vague instruction. Look where? At your face, at the book you’re holding, at the thing you’re pointing to on the whiteboard? Are you trying to get their attention, check if they’re listening, encourage joint attention or improve reciprocal communication? Forcing someone to make eye contact when they find it distressing won’t help with any of these goals.

Explain what it is and why it can be useful 

Looking at someone’s eyes is not the same thing as making eye contact, but that’s as far as we usually go in teaching kids exactly what it is. Those who find it difficult or uncomfortable to do are often aware that they’re “doing something wrong” without understanding what that is, or why others consider it to be important. So take the time to explain the purpose of eye contact, so you can work together to find ways to achieve the same outcome in a different way.

Explain when it’s inappropriate too
 

It’s just as important to know when not to make eye contact. The social rules surrounding appropriate eye contact are complex, and expecting or demanding it without taking time to explain these rules can leave autistic people extremely vulnerable to dangerous situations. For example, a woman making prolonged eye contact with a stranger on the bus may inadvertently send the wrong signal, as could a man locking eyes with a hostile drunk at the bar.

Nurture a feeling of safety 

It’s only when kids feel safe that they start wanting to connect and explore. Forcing someone to make eye contact when it’s frightening or uncomfortable won’t make them feel safe, and doesn’t allow them space to voluntarily seek out those connections.

Make faces less confusing 

Help your kids to understand different facial expressions - point them out in books, use flashcards and play games.

Help them to find ways to compensate
 

You can still send and receive valuable non-verbal information without looking at the eyes. Focusing on the lips while someone is talking is a good way to show interest and improve comprehension without the overload that comes from a direct gaze, and sunglasses can sometimes provide a buffer zone that makes eye contact more bearable.

Practice 

Provide low-stress opportunities to build up their eye contact skills. If they feel okay looking at your face while you avert your gaze, start slowly bringing your gaze a bit closer to centre each time. Looking at faces on TV can often be really good practice too, especially news readers who look directly at the camera. Provide buffer zones for physical and emotional distance - try practicing during conversations that are purely exchanges of information, without requiring any emotional connection, and sit across the room from each other.

Be careful with IEP goals
 

Making eye contact should never be a goal in itself. Aside from the inappropriateness of expecting someone to communicate in a way that makes them uncomfortable and anxious, eye contact is not a single behaviour. It requires understanding of social rules about when and with whom it’s appropriate, assessing the situation to decide whether to apply those rules, initiating contact, maintaining contact and for an appropriate amount of time, disengaging, using the contact to control the interaction... it’s a deceptively complex skill which needs to be broken down into sub-tasks before it could be considered as a useful IEP goal.

 

The bottom line

Forcing someone to make eye contact when it's uncomfortable is only going to hinder rather than help communication. Avoiding eye contact is communication... the person is telling you that for whatever reason, they find it difficult or unpleasant.

So if you want to help, the best place to start is by acknowledging and respecting the message that is being shared with you.

This article was first published in February 2013.

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