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Why autistic kids hate eye contact, and what to do about it

When it comes to the "autism community" (a term that refers mostly to neurotypical parents of autistic children, and the neurotypical self-proclaimed "experts" who insist they have the answers to what makes these kids tick), one of the greatest obsessions is eye contact.  Many an autistic child has been traumatized by that dreaded phrase, "Look at me," often coupled with harsh tones and a forceful pull to attempt to force the eyes to meet.  However, when asked why they care so much about eye contact, the most common reasons given by parents all start with "I" or "my," proceeding to go on about how said parent has made so many sacrifices, and this child has to start doing something in return. or else giving some other excuse which boils down to the whole complaint being a matter of eye contact being a neurotypical social convention which the parent is accustomed to.  To not get those little "treats" is abhorrent in the parent's mind, perhaps even insulting.  However, this parents-convenience point of view utterly disregards and ignores the most important and pressing question that many parents have about the lack of eye contact: WHY?  The answer, like so many others, is one that "experts" have been utterly unable to answer, because their brains simply are not wired like those of their patients, and thus they have no understanding of how someone's eyes boring into this reporter's would feel every bit as violating to his mind and emotions as rape.  In fact, repeated subjection to this form of psychological assault could be considered a form of emotional rape, where the parent is simply taking what they want without even thinking that the child may not want or benefit from it, and could even be hurt by the action.

Just because an eye-contact-averse autistic is best off not making eye contact, however, doesn't mean that the parent/teacher/therapist can't come up with a workaround.  For many children and adults on the spectrum, this primal sense of violation and attack only comes from direct eye contact, and thus, they can learn to fake eye contact.  Faking eye contact is a skill which will not only allow the autistic greater ease of communication (freeing them from the psychological assault of forced eye contact), but will also allow the parent to feel as though s/he is getting what s/he wants from his/her kid, without doing harm.

The trick to teaching the art of fake eye contact is to start off by making it a game, where the object is for the autistic to look at a part of the face of their choosing, while they try to make sure the other person can't figure out what part they're looking at.  Over time, this skill will improve, and they'll likely expand upon it independently without prompting once they get the hang of it.  This reporter, in particular, has developed the skill of faking eye contact to the point of simply looking at the entire face at once, a technique which is sufficient to fool even a psychologist or psychiatrist once it becomes second-nature.  However, since many false experts still insist that forcing eye contact works, and is appropriate, more children will be violated, and by their own parents and teachers, no less.  In the end, maybe instead of saying "Look at me," parents should be saying "If you won't look at me, then learn to fake it!"  Somehow, the kids would probably be better off that way, since it isn't as though they're not paying attention.

Comments

  • Taylor Rios 4 years ago

    I know that parents, teachers, and therapists want autistic children to communicate in ways they think they should, but maybe it is us that should learn different ways of communicating with them. Interesting note: I hate eye contact too

  • Victoria Cullen 4 years ago

    Another great piece. I have to say, with respect of my children at least, I did ask them to look at my shoulder. Mostly so I knew they had heard me as they tended to assume that I 'knew' they had heard me without verbal response. Also, I only asked this of them when I'd told them something very important such as, 'I'm going for a bath DONT open the front door'.

    On an aside, something I find personally very irritating, all the professionals we are involved with keep mentioning how 'odd' my children are that they are so affectionate. 'Autistic people generally aren't affectionate'. Maybe its because I've never forced them to hug me that they feel they can when they want to.

    I'll stop hijacking this article now :)

  • Judy T 4 years ago

    I have had countless arguments with school "professionals" about the issue of eye contact. They insist that without eye contact, they don't know if the student is paying attention. I tell them they can have attention or eye contact, but they can't have both. I have gotten the eye contact goal dropped from IEP's, but whiny teachers still complain. Good teachers "get it." My high school-age son can now fake eye contact amazingly well - a skill he learned on his own.

  • Nancy Z-Grand Rapids Health Examiner 4 years ago

    Great article. I agree with Taylor. Maybe we need to learn different ways of communicating with them.

  • Marc Rosen - Long Island Autism Examiner 4 years ago

    I'll be honest. After a while, every time someone told me, "Look me in the eye," all I could think was "**** you, **** your eye, and while we're at it, **** you IN the eye!" The motive for demanding eye-contact has nothing to do with the needs of autistic people, and everything to do with the selfishness of parents, teachers, and Lovaas-following behaviorists who refuse to see that NOT making eye contact is what's normal for THEIR child. "Normal" should never be defined in group terms, because whenever such things are done, dangerous things start to happen in the fields of education, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and disability rights. Normal is most properly defined as whatever one's individual baseline is, and that baseline not only can, but MUST change over time. The main reasons why these baselines don't change is because of overprotective, abusive, and/or neglectful parents who refuse to allow their kids to make mistakes to learn from.

  • Sherrie 4 years ago

    I agree- you can't have both eye contact and attention. Personally, I can pay better attention and remember what someone is saying if I am looking at something other than the person!

  • Holly Griffith 4 years ago

    Great article. You make a great point almost as an aside at the end. It is not as though autistic people are not paying attention. I know that my son would spend the great part of a class walking around the perimeter of the room yet when asked about what was said, he'd regurgitate almost verbatim. Eye contact is for the benefit of the other person not the autistic.

  • GeorgieRose 4 years ago

    "makes minimal eye contact with examiner" - I often see this in my son's assessments. Yesterday, in a meeting at school I was told by the teacher that he chose to sit in the back row of the classroom and was very quiet at times would rest his head in his hands while listening to her lecture and did not have eye contact with her. My response - one it was only the second day of high school, two it is a brand new school for him, three my son thinks better when he is not looking directly at the lecturer and to tune out surrounding distractions he will rest his head on his hand to listen or concentrate.

    They tell me other kids will think him strange if they do not intervene with pulling him out for social skills to address this need. My response - "How many other kids where sitting in the back row?" I am told the class was full and every seat was taken he was not the only kid in the back row. "Is it uncommon for new 9th graders to be a bit shy or apprehensive on the first day of school?" Oh they laugh and say almost all of them are nervous and it is very typical. My kid has friends and gets along well with others, he is kind and has no bad behavior problems in the classroom that get in the way of his learning. It is the school's behavior that gets in the way of my sons learning and when they bring up things like "other kids will think he is strange" then maybe if that is true it is the "other" kids that need the social skills training. The scary thing is the school uses stuff like this to justify putting him in special education classrooms something that he does not want and we will continue to fight.

    Thank you for this article!

  • Margi Sundell 4 years ago

    This was extremely helpful. I thought it was my job to make my son look me in the eye - other teacher-friends have told me he has poor eye contact, like it was a "bad" thing. I'm starting to understand that this is who he IS. And maybe eye contact with me will never really be his thing, except when it is. And I should not demand nor expect it of him. Thank you.

  • Margi Sundell 4 years ago

    Oh, the game you mentioned will be interesting to try. He's in 4th grade now. He is always more interested in learning if it can be made into a "game." A big challenge for me who was raised by authoritative parents and "just do it!" Thanks again.

  • Profile picture of fbp
    fbp 3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing that Marc.

    My son is non-verbal and does not have the language to say these things.

    I have never really invaded is space as you describe, but there are plenty that have. And that has not worked out well for them.

    Some time ago I speculated that most of what people call 'autism' is not the condition or a direct result of the condition, but rather consequences of misguided, even if well meaning, parenting. What do you thing of that?

  • Profile picture of fbp
    fbp 3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing that Marc.

    My son is non-verbal and does not have the language to say these things.

    I have never really invaded is space as you describe, but there are plenty that have. And that has not worked out well for them.

    Some time ago I speculated that most of what people call 'autism' is not the condition or a direct result of the condition, but rather consequences of misguided, even if well meaning, parenting. What do you thing of that?

  • Profile picture of fbp
    fbp 3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing that Marc.

    My son is non-verbal and does not have the language to say these things.

    I have never really invaded is space as you describe, but there are plenty that have. And that has not worked out well for them.

    Some time ago I speculated that most of what people call 'autism' is not the condition or a direct result of the condition, but rather consequences of misguided, even if well meaning, parenting. What do you thing of that?

  • Audrea Neblett 2 years ago

    My little girl is 3, and I have been told to force her to make eye contact, I hate the way she fights it, it will reduce her tears and crying fits. I no longer do this and if others don't like the fact that I'll parent her how I see fit that's their problem.
    Thank you for this article.

  • Anonymous 2 years ago

    Why does eye contact hurt you so much? Is it just the pupils, or the eye as a whole (so for example, could you look at the whites of my eyes, or the iris, or would that still be painful?)

  • Anonymous 2 years ago

    I remember a specific incident from when I was in high school. My physics teacher once asked me to make eye contact during a one-on-one conversation. I told him that I don't make eye contact, and his response was a simple "okay." It made the rest of the conversation easier on me, and years later I still remember how comforting it was that he didn't force the issue.

  • C 1 year ago

    Well, why don't they just ask the aging autistic balloon population? I could tell them exactly what it is: Anxiety. Eye contact can cause paralyzing anxiety/instant full-blown panic attack. You would rather chew off your own foot sometimes than have to feel like someone is reaching into your inner being, scoping out your soul and passing judgment. It feels like you are instantaneously being stripped naked and attacked all at once. It feels sooooo invasive if a stranger does it. Once you get to know someone well and really trust them, it usually feels okay, but not if they hit on an emotional raw spot while making eye contact. It is much like sex and just as intimate to the Autie crowd. (Imagine someone you don't know walks up to you and tries to hump you within the first 5 seconds. Just a touch invasive, yes? THAT is what eye contact feels like to autistic kids.)