The Eyes Have It: The Autism Files

The Eyes Have It: The Autism Files


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 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 our son 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 our son 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, 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 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.

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

  1. i dont think i read this one before, or at least if i did, given timespan and present awareness, it is very new. brilliant writing. the theme, that is, the ‘image’ that came thru to me consistently and is so visceral is the idea of where one directs ones eyes and what that means in standard interpretation. but hello? are there still teachers who dont honor differences? uh, dont answer that one haha…..
    i can see where a sensitivity to confrontation could lead someone to find a less
    uncomfortable approach, whatever that may pan out to be personally, but i am really impressed about Michael’s way of doing that. brilliant actually. cant do it head on? not everybody could know/feel/understand the discomfort of head-on eye contact, and yet also develop a personal sideways method of accomplishing it, and according to an inner logic. geez, some spend entire lives trying to do that! and here is a boy making a quantum leap so to speak. it is astonishing.

    1. I wrote it a long time ago tipota so you may not have read it – I remember Squires reading it (and back then I didn’t have that many readers) and relating to the eye contact thing. Michael is a smart cookie – lateral thinker as well as lateral looker 🙂

  2. Now, what a simple solution! You’re right about teachers: even after five years working with autistic children I still have to stop myself asking them to look at me in my eyes. the nose is a cool alternative.

    1. Thanks Graham. I have many photos of Michael with things on his head, even pull-ups – haha – part of it is also his need to feel things near his skin (pressure from clothing or blankets etc.,) so that he knows where he is in space (that is the proprioceptive issue).

  3. I love the backwards hugging, it sounds so cute. I’m impressed at his adaptiveness when he wears masks/beards and in general by heightening his peripheral vision. Such a clever little man

  4. All these things we learn from autism here sound like pretty good adaptations for the rest of us to try as well. Always learning something new from the autism files…

    1. Thanks Aletha 🙂 They do translate to the every day – I was just thinking how when you get in trouble as a kid and your parents are lecturing you – well, the last thing you want to do is look them in the eye (solution – look them in the chin or nose – haha).

  5. I agree with Aletha, I learn so much about human behavior reading these. I remember reading that having a discussion in a car is good, specially with boys, because we dont face each other and then lower the confrontation. but can be a bit hazardous if its get too hot!

  6. I think you must have helped a lot of people with your Autism Files, Gabe. You have certainly helped me increase my understanding. Good on you!!

  7. This is a great post Gabrielle … and really interesting. You certainly help me understand more about autism. Sometimes I think when a person acts in a different way, people can take it to mean a certain thing – when really there’s another issue or reason for a particular behaviour or action altogether.

    1. That’s right Tracey – often ASD people are thought of as arrogant or shifty because of their peculiarities with eye contact and speech, but this is not true at all (unless they are arrogant and shifty of course 😉 ) – our analysis of body language (which we do all the time as a matter of course) can be faulty if we don’t know the person very well – so it can be best not to be too judgemental with strangers. This can also be a problem for ASD people who get arrested – the police assume they are hiding something because of the lack of eye contact or seeming to be remorseless.

  8. Thanks for teaching me something vital today. I’ve had experience with people who culturally do not make direct eye contact often–and this is normal for them. But ASD is something else entirely. It’s good information to know. Much appreciated.

  9. I am sure my older son is on the spectrum but never diagnosed. He used reading at the table to avoid eye contact around meals at home and school and social events. He claims it’s too hard to concentrate on people’s faces and what he is saying at the same time. I’ve bribed him: You can spend thirty seconds less talking to me if you give me fifteen seconds of eye contact right now so you can get back to reading. He laughs and does. it. It makes me happy. He’s so handsome. On the other hand, he has tons of smart, great, talkative girlfriends. They think he is shy, intellectually brilliant, non-threatening, a good listener and very kind. He’s all those things.

    1. He sounds wonderful squirrel 🙂 Many aspies can be magnets for woman who see the tall, dark aloof man at the party who has a mysterious air about him (like Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice who has many aspie qualities). Though most aspies are not the greatest listeners (though they may give the appearance of listening) unless it is about their latest obsession.

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