Eye Contact In Children With Autism
What is autism and how does it affect eye contact?
Shelli Dry, doctor of occupational therapy and clinical director at Enable My Child, describes autism as a social disorder. However, many individuals with autism also experience sensory disorders.
Their sensory system is on high alert. They feel, hear and see things at a higher stimulation level than others and can get overwhelmed by too much sensory input, Dry says.
She adds that the many facial expression changes that occur throughout a conversation are often reflected through a persons eyes.
Just by making eye contact, youre seeing all of the different ways a person can look depending on their expressions,” she says. Imagine how overwhelming that can be for someone with sensory delays.
Overstimulation is the reason autistic individuals often prefer to avoid eye contact, unless taught and practiced otherwise.
Is it possible for someone with autism to make eye contact with no trouble?
Yes. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, the presence and severity of symptoms vary greatly. And eye contact can improve over time.
As individuals with autism mature, they develop new strategies, she explains. Many times, theyre able to overcome problems that really affected them when they were younger.
These strategies are usually developed with help from parents or caretakers, she adds.
Why Toddlers With Autism Avoid Eye Contact
Science has long debated whether meeting anothers gaze feels unpleasant or just uninteresting
Toddlers with autism are oblivious to the social information in the eyes, but dont actively avoid meeting another persons gaze, according to a new study.
The findings support one side of a long-standing debate: Do children with autism tend not to look others in the eye because they are uninterested or because they find eye contact unpleasant?
This question about why do we see reduced eye contact in autism has been around for a long time, says study leader Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Its important for how we understand autism, and its important for how we treat autism.
If children with autism dislike making eye contact, treatments could incorporate ways to alleviate the discomfort. But if eye contact is merely unimportant to the children, parents and therapists could help them understand why it is important in typical social interactions.
The work also has implications for whether scientists who study eye contact should focus on social brain regions rather than those involved in fear and anxiety.
Lack of eye contact is among the earliest signs of autism, and its assessment is part of autism screening and diagnostic tools. Yet researchers have long debated the underlying mechanism.
Why Is Eye Contact Difficult And Distressing For Individuals With Autism
The question why individuals with autism avoid or have reduced eye contact has been asked for a long time. Studies debunked the theory that lack of eye contact indicates an indifference and lack of empathy.
Since children with autism cannot convey what they want or feel through making eye contact, it is difficult to engage with them. Some of the research did not suggest uncomfortable sensation in children with autism when they were subjected to eye contact.
However, the results of the studies are enough to rethink the consequences of coercing them to practice the behavior.
During their therapies, sometimes children with autism are forced to look into someones eye so as to complete their task. However, forcing children with ASD into making eye contact may create a lot of anxiety for them.
Instead of forcing children with autism into making eye contact, it has to be a slow process of getting used to the concept. This may be a more appropriate manner to help them handle the process of eye contact without causing stress.
In this way, the impact that avoiding eye contact has on the social brain can also be avoided.
Society should also understand the reasons for avoiding eye contact by individuals on the autism spectrum. Understanding that eye contact can actually create physical and psychological discomfort would help other people see the complexities of facial expressions for such individuals.
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Should We Force Eye Contact
So should we insist on eye contact with those who find it uncomfortable? As with many complex questions, the best answer is probably it depends.
First and foremost, we encourage you to begin by exploring what the issue means for your son. How does making eye contact affect your son? Does it help him pay attention to the conversation or make it more difficult?
Avoidance Of Eye Contact: An Early Sign Of Autism
Early detection and treatment has been declared critical to autism, putting more emphasis on the early identification of the red flags of autism. Early identification of autistic behavior in the first 12 months of infancy enables on-time application of effective therapy, such as applied behavior analysis , which significantly helps in the treatment of autism. Parents must be educated about the suggestive symptoms of autism, since they are the first ones who can identify them.
Infants who avoid eye contact with their parents mostly end up with a diagnosis of autism. This sign falls under the social skills category of autism and is regarded as a red flag. Eye contact in infants can be observed as early as the age of six months, making it a very important source of the earliest possible indication of autism. As per the growth milestones set by pediatricians, most babies start to make eye contact at around three months of age. If an infant fails to make eye contact in the first six months, an immediate consultation with an expert is recommended.
Pediatricians can further evaluate the eye contact problem by observing and asking parents about the following infant behavior traits:
- The baby tends not to look at parents.
- The baby fails to recognize familiar faces.
- The baby does not cry when parents leave them.
- The baby does not show anxiety with strangers.
- The baby tends to gaze out of the corner of the eye.
- The baby has problem following objects visually.
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How Autistic Play Is Different
Kids with autism play differently from other kids. Even at a very young age, kids with autism are more likely than their typical peers to line objects up, play by themselves, and repeat the same actions over and over again. Theyre also less likely to engage in games that require make-believe, collaboration, or social communication.
Of course, many children without autism line up objects, play alone, or choose other activities over make-believe. But while children with autism are apparently unaware of others activities and preferences, typical children imitate their peers to learn new play skills, collaborate with others, and ask questions when theyre confused.
Typical children who play alone generally do so for a reason, and are capable of joining in when theyre ready or encouraged to do so.
If your child seems unaware of other children or appears to be unable to learn new play skills through observation, social engagement, or verbal communication, this could be a sign of autism.
Here are some differences to watch for:
- A preference for playing alone almost all the time
- Inability or unwillingness to grasp basic rules of shared play
- Engaging in activities that seem purposeless and repetitive
- Inability or unwillingness to respond to friendly overtures from adults or peers
- Apparent obliviousness to other childrens behaviors or words
- Apparent inability to grasp the basics of symbolic play
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Symptoms Of Autism In Young Children
With babies and toddlers, the symptoms of autism are about what the child does NOT do at a typical age. The symptoms listed below happen at a variety of ages, but they are all things that a child with autism may NOT do. These symptoms include:
- Child does not make eye contact
- Child does not smile you smile at him/her
- Child does not respond to his/her name, or to the sound of a familiar voice
- Child does not follow objects visually
- Child does not point or wave goodbye, or use other gestures to communicate
- Child does not follow your finger when you point at things
- Child does not make noises to get your attention
- Child does not initiate or respond to cuddling
- Child does not reach out to be picked up.
Should We Insist On Eye Contact With People Who Have Autism Spectrum Disorders
Rozella Stewart, M.A.
When and whether students who have autism spectrum disorders should be required to make eye contact is a controversial issue. It is possible to become very confused about this issue when one works with a number of differentusually very differentstudents who have autism.
Some people who have autism actively avoid eye contact and appear confused and anxious when it occurs. Some seemed to make eye contact relatively early but later reported they were actually looking at something that fascinated them . When cued “Look at me,” some make eye contact that recipients experience more as a staring gaze than as a communicative exchange. Some gradually learn to make eye contact and to read simple meanings that they have come to understand through experiences with what happens to them when a particular person’s eyes have a specific look.
In determining where we stand in the midst of ongoing controversy, it seems reasonable to consider what our purposes for expecting or “requiring” eye contact really are. Having defined our purposes, we need to ponder whether those purposes are best served by strategies that we employ.
Bovee, J.P. . My experiences with autism and how it related to “Theory of Mind” – Part 1. Advocate, 32, 18-19.
Stuart, R. . Should we insist on eye contact with people who have autism spectrum disorders. The Reporter, 5, 7-12.
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Practice Eye Contact By Giving It Yourself
How much do you look at your baby? Do you hold eye contact with your child during a normal conversation? These are the staggering facts: the average person checks his or her phone 150 times a day. To make matters worse, the typical American spends more than five hours per day using either computers or mobile devices and then another four and a half hours watching TV. I know I love watching Shark Tank as much as anyone, but if more time is spent looking at the TV and phone than making eye contact with your child, you know we have a problem. This technology driven generation has huge implications on our interactions and how we treat people! Be a role model to your children in social interaction. Take time to disconnect from technology, hold eye contact with your child as much as possible when talking to them, and show them that they are more important than the technological distractions of everyday life.
Other Signs Of Autism
Early indicators of autism in babies include:
- Little eye contact.
- Lack of response to name.
- Obsessive interest or focus in specific objects.
Not all babies develop at the same rate, so some may show one or more signs of autism at a young age and then catch up to their neurotypical peers by age 2 or so. As a result, lack of eye contact can be a warning sign and potential indicator of autism, but it is not definite proof of the disorder. Other signs and symptoms will need to be present too.
Autism screening should be done during well-child checkups. Pediatricians will conduct these screenings at both the 18-month and 24-month exams.
The earlier autism can be recognized and diagnosed, and interventions can begin, the better the long-term outcome for the child. If you notice any of the possible signs of autism, including lack of eye contact, speak to your childs doctor.
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Continue Learning About Autism
Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.
Can Autistic Children Make Eye Contact And Show Affection
Some children do make eye contact, and some work for years to learn to make eye contact. Showing affection is difficult for children with ASD, but it can be achieved if you model that behavior, be patient, and give it time. A child with ASD may be very affectionate, but he may not express it in traditional hugs and kisses.
From The Smart Parent’s Guide: Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents by Jennifer Trachtenberg.
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Doesn’t Respond To Your Call
Your child interacts with you and others and has normal play habits and sensory responses, but doesn’t respond to your voice when they have their back turned away from you. This may occur in children with autism along with many other symptoms that point to autism.
You may notice patterns of behavior such as those that involve a sensory processing disorder or a lasting and intense focus on objects or topics along with a lack of:
- babbling or use of words
- eye contact
If your child is simply not hearing you, there’s a good chance they are either very engaged in play or have some level of hearing loss. If you find that this is an ongoing issue, it is vital to bring up the issue with your child’s health care provider.
There may be no need to worry just yet that your child has autism.
Autism Eye Contact: Its Not Easy For Asd Kids
Eye contact avoidance is an issue that troubles many parents with children on the spectrum. Should your child with autism be encouraged to make eye contact and how should the childs avoidance be managed without inducing anxiety or stress? These and other controversial questions are sometimes answered with a narrow, neurotypical view.
Neurotypical society puts enormous value on eye contact. Eye contact is used to connect, to show interest, facilitate communication, and is often encouraged as a sign of respect. For many individuals with autism spectrum disorder , eye contact is troublesome, possibly because they dont perceive the eyes as socially engaging or significant. The subject is further complicated by the vast difference between individuals on the spectrum.
People with autism give a wide range of answers when asked why they find eye contact tough some say it makes them extremely uncomfortable or distressed, some say they avoid it because its just not that important to them, and others say they find eye contact distractingespecially when competing sensory inputs are present during social interactions.
Its little wonder then that author John Elder Robison decided to call his memoir: Look Me in the Eye My Life with Aspergers. In his touching recount he describes how his unique habits, including an avoidance of eye contact earned him the label of social deviant.
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Research Question #3 What Strategies Do People With Self
7) Strategies to improve eye contact
Fifty-one separate meaning units contained strategies for improving eye contactgenerally describing ways to become more comfortable with using eye contact or getting better at using it appropriately.
Exposure & Practice. Some people , discussed concepts of exposure therapy, whereby they began by practicing brief glances to others eyes at first, and gradually becoming more and more comfortable over time. Interestingly, many described the usefulness of practicing first with photographs or mirrors before working up to family and close friends, before becoming comfortable making eye contact with strangers.
As one person suggested,
Practice on someone you feel the most comfortable witheven a relative. You may not be able to maintain it and it can be scary at first. Try for a few seconds at a time. Once you can do that, practice on other people.
Others mentioned that eye contact was much easier to practice with pets or other animals before working up to human eyes.
It is generally easier to make eye contact with animals than with humans, that might be a less distressing first step and making eye contact with humans might be the next step.
Barrier. Some people suggested using a barrier, such as sunglasses, seeing glasses or contact lenses made eye contact more bearable.
Observation. Some people said they observe how neurotypicals use eye contact and try to mimic their behaviors.
I look out the corner of my eyes, in that cute little way.
What Does Autism Look Like
This section describes autism spectrum disorder in greater detail. The term spectrum can be dened as a continuous sequence or range . As such, parents, caregivers, and educators will recognize the wide range of strengths and challenges children with ASD exhibit.
Social Communication Impairments may include the following:
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities include:
Many parents, caregivers, and educators report that children with ASD exhibit behavioral challenges such as tantrum behavior, aggressive behavior, self-injurious behavior, property destruction, and noncompliance. Challenging behaviors should be addressed promptly at home and at school.
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