The Eyes Have It: The Autism Files
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty with eye contact. They often don’t like looking directly into eyes or maintaining eye contact in order to share experiences with others.
Looking into a face, and particularly the eyes, gives us information about what people are thinking and feeling. We are reading and interpreting facial expressions. Individuals with ASD are missing out on this information, reducing their ability to understand what is going on in social situations.
Children and often adults with ASD not only avoid looking into eyes, but when they do try to read eyes, they are not very good at it. Here is a quote from a person with Aspergers Syndrome.
People give each other messages with their eyes but I do not know what they are saying (Wing 1992, p 131).
When my son Michael was two years old some relatives commented that he didn’t have very good eye contact. I hadn’t really noticed. Later I did notice that he would turn his head away from strangers or people he didn’t see very often. He would look at people with sideways glances and became an expert at using peripheral vision.
Michael’s speech therapist pointed out that he couldn’t see things that are directly in front of him. This upset me greatly as I couldn’t fathom what it meant. Was he blind in some way or was he choosing to do this. When she interacted with Michael she would place objects to the left or right of his visual field.
I think that eye contact was very confronting for Michael and that looking sideways reduced the discomfort. Interestingly I found that if there was a physical barrier (such as a glass window or a mask) between Michael and the person, then he was quite happy to look directly at them. One year he played Santa Claus at the school play and he interacted perfectly normally with all the other kids. In fact, revelling in the attention he was getting as Santa Claus, hidden as he was behind the beard and moustache.
Another thing that he did, which may be related, was backwards hugging. A front hug appeared to be too confronting so he would back into me and wrap my arms around him.
When Michael was running in races at school he would have his head facing to the right. This looked very peculiar, but he was seeing directly ahead with his peripheral vision. Friends gave Michael a motorized Jumbo Jeep and he would do the same thing, head facing right as he drove around the back garden. He was seeing clearly in front of him with his ‘sideways looking’ as he drove the car and never ran into anything. It was very funny.
Teachers like children to look at them. They think the child is not paying attention or is being rude if they don’t look at them. However, children with ASD find it incredibly difficult to listen and look at the same time. They may be able to listen better if they are NOT looking at the teacher. This is an issue of teacher education. They need to understand that children with ASD should not be forced to endure eye contact. It is not essential to listening and learning and may be detrimental to both.
People with ASD can be taught to look at a persons nose, chin or ears instead of the eyes. The person being looked at will probably not even realise that they aren’t being looked in the eye. Everyone is happy.
Wing, L., (1992) ‘Manifestations of social problems in high functioning autistic people’. In E. Schopler and G.B Mesibov (eds) High Functioning Individuals with Autism. New York: Plenum Press.