Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty with eye contact. They 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 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.

His 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 him she would place objects to the left or right of his visual field.

I think that eye contact was very confronting for him and that looking sideways reduced the discomfort. It was interesting but I found that if there was a physical barrier between him and someone, such as a glass window or a mask, then he was quite happy to look directly at the person. One year he played Santa Claus at the school play and he interacted perfectly normally with all the other kids. In fact, reveling in the attention he was getting as Santa Claus, hidden as he was behind the beard and mustache.

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 he 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 him a motorized Jumbo Jeep and he would do the same thing, head turning to the right but seeing clearly in front of him as he drove the car and never running 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 one being looked at will probably not even realise that they aren’t being looked in the eye. Everyone is happy.

References

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.

17 thoughts on “The Eyes Have It: The Autism Files

  1. Hey Gabrielle, as a teacher with an autistic student I know exactly what you mean. The student often reacts better without direct eye contact, and has great listening skills. (Actually, many students don’t mind me occasionally speaking to the class from the back of the room – gives me a good view of what they’re up to too!)

  2. Every time I read your posts on autism I found so many interesting things about communication. And to me communication is the hardest thing we have to tame. You help me see and understand that there are different ways to communicate.

  3. Your posts about Michael are so fascinating. What a remarkable little boy he is. It sounds to me like perhaps a part of ASD is an extra-sensitivity to input from the outside world — as though the person who has ASD develops behaviors to manage it so that he/she will not become overwhelmed.

  4. Truly Gabe, these posts need to be collected, published and distributed amongst educators and parents. There is not enough info out there that tells it straight.

    1. Thanks Graham. I will think about the best way to do it. I do already have a large network of parents that read the blogs, but it could go a lot broader. I don’t mind if people print them out for people (I will put a note on the blog to say they can be copied without permission).

    1. Thanks for stopping by hughesy. I have thought of that and I might if I ever get the courage to (it would require a great deal of honesty I’d imagine! – you would know having written one). For the moment I am just concentrating on making ASD behaviours more comprehensible to people so their is less judgment.

  5. My son told me one day that my voice sounds funny if he’s looking in my eyes when I’m talking. He has ASD and often looks at my chin when we’re in conversation. Since verbal learning is so hard for many kids on the spectrum, adding the need to look at someone when they’re talking only makes the words sound even wierder!

    1. That is very interesting. Thanks for sharing divinescribble. I love to hear from parents of ASD children. That is a good point you have made and I should have mentioned the difficulty with auditory comprehension (another blog I think on that one).

  6. I agree with everyone else – these posts really are invaluable. Would every parent of an ASD child know about these things? I definitely know that not all teachers would be aware. Thank you for broadening my knowledge of ASD.

    1. You’re welcome. Most parents of autistic kids eventually know about this stuff (but not at the beginning)because through understanding of the issues you can control some of the meltdowns. I used to meet regularly with mothers (and some fathers) and we’d always end up discussing what causes what behaviours and what we’ve done as interventions etc. Now I do that stuff online.

  7. hi gabrielle,

    i mentioned to you about michael, my cousin with autism, from one of my comments here. he is now 19 years old. he has also difficulty in his sight and from what i read from this post, i am trying to remember if he has the same spectrum difficulties. this blog has broadened my knowledge about autism. my aunt is also a teacher specialized in teaching special children, some of them, with varying degrees of autism.

    thank you for sharing,
    marvin

    1. It is amazing the differences between people on the spectrum but also the underlying similarities. I am so glad my blog is helping people to learn a little more about the autism spectrum. Thanks hames1977 for stopping by and commenting.

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