Autism Awareness Month, Day 4: Eye Contact


The eyes are of little use if the mind is blind. ~Arabian Proverb

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but I leave my shades drawn. ~Anonymous

I'll stop being rude when you stop staring

This weekend I’ll have the distinct pleasure of attending a conference whose keynote speaker is John Elder Robison. If you’re familiar with the literary/autism world, you’ll recognize him as the author of the delightful autobiography Look Me In The Eye. The title refers to a strange quirk of so many ASers. For those who don’t know, eye contact is often painful for us, if not excrutiating. We’re not trying to be rude and many of us are not shy. It’s just the way we’re wired. Why exactly this is so, I couldn’t tell you. It probably has something to do with our difficulty reading facial expressions or even recognizing faces. At least in my case, it’s nearly impossible to remember someone I met even several minutes ago unless the person is distinctive in some way. As a child, I was hopeless at that old “Guess Who?” game.

Friend: Are you, like, sorta person-ish and non-descript and generally impossible to describe?

Me: Why, yes! However did you know?

As I’ve grown, making eye contact has become a little easier, but not much. I still avert my eyes as if looking at some bright supernova. In situations like job interviews and social gatherings, I’ve had to keep repeating the mantra that if I make a conscious effort when it comes to eye contact, I can reward myself at the end. Seriously, when I think about it, I feel the same kind of anticipation I get when going to the dentist.

Why yes, you do look strange from that angle

Never once did I have the problem of eye contact with animals. If you’ve never had the opportunity to look deep into the liquid brown eyes of a horse, or the mysterious golden eyes of your pet cat, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Animals only see us; they do not judge us the way people do. In fact, I learned a good deal about eye contact through observing cats. (For anyone who has ever had a cat, think of the way they will stare to get what they want. That’s eye contact.)

Of course, there need to be healthy boundaries drawn as to what is appropriate. Many autistic kids may want to stare when staring is considered rude. There’s no magic way to teach, as all kids are different, but gentle and reassuring is the best way of all. Never forget that a parent is a child’s first and greatest role model. Your child, autistic or not, will model your behaviors. If you teach that something is healthy and appropriate, that’s what your child will learn. Ditto if you teach that something is inappropriate.

Hey, mum's the word

Because eye contact can actually be perceived as a threat for some autistic children (think, for example, how a doomed squirrel or mouse must feel when making eye contact with a swooping hawk!), my personal preference would be positive reinforcement training as recommended by professional horse or dog trainers. Don’t try to force everything at once. If you’re trying to work with a child for whom eye contact is difficult, reward even tiny steps. If he or she can make eye contact with you for even a few seconds, that’s improvement. Give your child a reward (a favorite toy, time to talk about his or her special interest) and start again the next day where you left off. Young children, like young horses, quickly respond to conditioning when they know they’ll get a treat.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that children should be treated like animals or trained as such. If any of my readers have also read Temple Grandin’s wonderful books about animal behavior as it pertains to autism, they will know what I mean when I use this analogy.

Eye contact can also be a cultural issue. Certain cultures, such as many Westernized societies, expect and want eye contact, especially as it pertains to social hierarchies. In other parts of the world, such as Japan and certain Eastern European nations, eye contact with strangers is considered a social gaffe. While not all families with autistic children can move to an exotic land, this might also present itself as an opportunity to talk. No two families are alike, and no solution is right for every family. (Parents who might not want to give strangers “the whole story” about their autistic son or daughter may wish to use the convenient explanation of cultural differences, as autism can be a culture all its own.)

They call me “Blinky”

Also, my personal advice to AS parents (especially those who are NTs?) Don’t absolutely force your child to do what is unnatural. Love them for their uniqueness and try not to focus on what you perceive to be “wrong.” For example, may AS kids are amazing observers who might put Columbo or Adrian Monk to shame. It may look like they’re “off in space” or daydreaming…but, like a plains antelope, they’re always alert for predators. (I’m of the school who believes that autism is a kind of heightened sensitivity and vigilance. If you want to call it Spider-sense or ESP, that’s fine, but I choose not to.)

I’d also recommend the Robison book as a unique look into a life spent with Asperger’s. I’ll be sure to write up my experience at the conference this weekend.

Enjoyed this post? Be sure to click “Like” and add P&Q to your subscriptions. I’ll be continuing my Autism Awareness Month theme through April, then I’ll be back to my regular random insanity…I promise.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 5, 2011.

One Response to “Autism Awareness Month, Day 4: Eye Contact”

  1. Thanks for posting this. You have a wonderful blog. Spending time with family is something I truly enjoy in life. Family activities is a great way to spend time with your friends and family.

    Check out these Fun Family Activities

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