#Autism: The challenge of eye contact

While I was out walking yesterday,  something occurred to me.  There is something to be said about the difficulties of making eye contact,  even for the neurotypical person.

For whatever reason,  I never made the connection until yesterday,  but it’s really not that easy to make eye contact,  especially with strangers.

I know that as a parent to three boys on the spectrum,  I always encourage my boys to look me in the eyes when talking to me.  I only encourage but never require.  I also know that there seems to be a push to make people with Autism make eye contact. 

Making eye contact is an important part of the diagnostic process as well. 

However,  I have to say again, from a neurotypical perspective,  eye contact isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I realized this while walking at the part for Fit4Autism yesterday afternoon.  There are so many people at the park we I’m walking.  I literally pass countless people on the walking track.

I noticed that as I’m approaching someone going the opposite direction on the track,  they rarely make eye contact with me. I always make it a point to try and at least smile at them.  However,  to be perfectly honest,  even I have a hard time looking people in the eye,  especially of I don’t know them.

More often than not,  I find myself looking at the ground in front of me,  while I’m walking past someone.  I make a concerted effort to remember to look people in the eyes and smile,  nut it isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

So I decided to do a pseudo social experiment.  Nothing high quality and this would never hold up in court but here is what I found.

I started forcing myself to look people in the eyes and smile as I walked by them.  Not in a creepy way either.  Basically,  it was just acknowledging their presence and smiling to sorta say hello. More often than not,  the smile and eye contact were not returned.  Most people focused either straight ahead,  straight down or off to the side.

Only a few people would return the eye contact and smile back to me. I was really surprised by that.. Is I realize that I would be considered a stranger but still…..

I guess my whole point is that I wonder if we should be pushing eye contact so hard with our kids on the spectrum. 

I’m not Autistic and I don’t really lack confidence but eye contact is still difficult and often times uncomfortable for me.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a child or adult on the spectrum.

I have heard people with Autism,  describe eye contact as even being painful.  I can honestly understand where they are coming from and I don’t face the same sensory processing issues as many of those with Autism do.

I just wanted to share this with all of you.  Realizing this has really changed my perspective on the eye contact thing,  at least as far as my kids go. 

I think eye contact is important but in some cases,  maybe we push a little to hard. 

Do your own little social experiment.  Next time you are out and about,  see how many people will actually make eye contact with you. You might be surprised by what you find. 

I was a real eye opener for me.  🙂

**Thanks for reading**

       -Lost and Tired

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Posted from WordPress for Android so please forgive any typos as auto-correct and I don’t see eye to eye. 🙂

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Steph204

Not everyone on the autism spectrum avoids eye contact entirely. My daughter would make eye contact with some people but not others, and at some times but not others. It depended on the situation and on her state that a given day or at any time in the day. She could be obsessive about maintaining eye contact, actually, with her ‘safe’ people…playing peek-a-boo, for instance, for long periods of time and getting great joy from it, while totally avoiding eye contact with people she didn’t trust, especially authority (read: authoritarian type) figures, for years to the point of turning not just her head but her whole body away from them, even throwing herself on the floor if people tried to force her to look at them. The eyes truly are ‘the window to the soul’ and she instinctively knew not to let certain people to ‘get to her’. She wore glasses, thick glasses, and when overwhelmed or pushed around by school figures, or anyone in her family or caregivers, who tried to make her be or do more than she knew she was able, she’d take off her glasses and throw them. It was thought to be acting out, defiance, until her dad and I realized that she was pretty blind without them and so it was her way – and I think really rather clever – of taking a giant step back from the world, Mother May I! She couldn’t make the ‘bullies’ withdraw from her, so she formed a tactical retreat in the best way she could since they wouldn’t let her leave. Very instinctual. When we really noodle it through, think with our own most basic instincts, autistic kids can have pretty good instincts after all, but we mistake them for ‘bad instincts’ because they don’t result in “socially acceptable” behaviours. They’re just trying to control their immediate environment, one that is overwhelming them, and so when they bite, when they scream, when they throw themselves on the ground, when they refuse to get out of bed, when they refuse to go to places we want them to go…they’re communicating something to us. They’re trying to cope. With themselves. With us. In those moments it’s not them we need to focus on first, but what we are doing, how we are behaving toward them, and what exactly we are trying to get them to do and WHY. Believe me…my daughter’s behaviours finally taught me to really THINK about how important each and EVERY request/demand I was making of her really was. After we stopped making her go to a lot of places she really didn’t *need* to go to, doing things that weren’t *really* necessary, we saw a lot more eye contact, a LOT less screaming and she stopped biting and hitting and started getting out of bed every day without fuss. We started fighting with the teachers to stop making her do silly crap just for the sake of making her do stuff instead of allowing them to fight with her all day. Lo and behold! She actually got an education!

HFLifeMom

I'm glad you brought this up. I've noticed that I can look a stranger in the eye when walking by him/her and smile and I often do. But if I'm talking with someone and trying to think, I can't look him/her in the eye. I have to look away. I actually had a colleague at work confront me that she didn't think I liked her because I always looked away when we talked. When I told her I couldn't look someone in the eye and think at the same time, she seemed surprised but then she understood. I try to make an effort now to look at people when I'm thinking, but it's easy to forget.
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Lost_and_Tired

Thanks for sharing that. It really is a challenging thing to do when you actually pay attention to it. Very interesting comment, thank you 🙂

Silachan

Eye contact is extremely unnerving and uncomfortable. There's just something about it that I can't explain. When I'm talking to people I know that it's standard to look them in the eyes, but I can't do it. I can't even do it with my partner. I fake it by looking at their nose or forehead, but even then I have to look away. I wonder what's so difficult about it.

Kay Turner

Although I will usually say “Peter, will you please look at me, so that I know you are listening”, when he is busy with something and I need his attention, I accept him just turning his body towards me whilst he still looks anywhere but at my eyes! But there are other times, when he is being all cuddly and he will look me straight in the eye, nose to nose, and tell me repeatedly, how much he loves me. It all appears to have to be on HIS terms!

With strangers on the street, I think maybe it depends on the area or culture, as I will always try to smile at people I pass, and have noticed that people who ‘grew up’ here will respond likewise, but those that don’t, tend to be the immigrants, who seem to go out of their way to either not notice the people they pass, or try and look as ‘tough and nasty’ as they can. A shame really, as they would probably be accepted by the community quicker if they tried to be a part of it.

Lost_and_Tired

Very interesting perspective. We do the same thing with our kids you do with yours. We encourage but don\’t push. It really is challenging them…

Shel

Eye contact is such a cultural thing. In some cultures. making eye contact is very disrespectful. Born and raised a New Englander, I never made eye contact with strangers. But after moving to Southern Virginia, I realize how many people look eachother in the eye. It took me a long time to get used to looking at others and smiling at people I dont know.

Lost_and_Tired

I totally agree. I just realized that eye contact is easier said than done at times, even for typical persons. 🙂

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