In conversation, I listen better when not managing the sensory flood that comes with eye contact. I often close my eyes to shut out the social and sensory distractions–the relentless barrage of cues and stimulus–and focus on the words being spoken.
Don’t force eye contact. Gaze aversion is a sensory processing tool, one necessary to managing sensory overwhelm. Dissociation is a tool for managing information and protecting ourselves. When an autistic person looks away, we are thinking and processing. We are paying attention. There is a lot of processing and parsing going on within.
We can either look like we’re paying attention, or we can actually pay attention, in our way, using our tools. We can either concentrate on your words or concentrate on making eye contact.
Don’t burden neurodivergent kids with neurotypical expectations of eye contact. They are not neurotypical, never will be, and don’t need to be. Forcing eye contact denies an important coping mechanism and burns them out. IEPs and behavioral therapies should not make eye contact a goal. Such compliance rubrics are not in touch with their needs or the way their minds work.
Instead, try compassion and empathy. Change the expectations instead of changing us. Autistic communities have different ideas about appropriate amounts of eye contact. Neurotypical norms are not the only norms.
“Look at me!” The mouth beneath the eyes commands. “I don’t want to, it hurts…” you think. “This is all part of the problem you see?” The voice says to your parents who nod sadly, “Lack of eye contact, this we must stamp out. It’s a sign of non-compliance, a sign of disregard. The child’s lost, you see…?” “What?” You think, baffled, “I’m right here!” Your parents sign a form giving permission for intense Applied Behavior Analysis to begin. Forty hours per week. Forty hours of look at me/quiet hands? No more fluttering your hands in a language only you know, no more flapping your hands watching golden drops of happiness fly from your fingertips as you hum … no more angry bolts of lightening flying from your nails as you shake your hands so hard your wrists pound. No more you.
Eye contact, who’s it for? It’s not for the autistic child. It’s for the recipient. It’s for their own validation to reassure them that you know they exist. That you are aware they are speaking that you comply. That you acknowledge them. It’s not about the child; it’s no benefit to the child to do something that in many cases is painful. Intrusive. It’s for them. They don’t understand the avoidance of eye contact, the rapidly moving hands, the hum and the bounce of the feet. The rhythmic rock you employ to comfort, a rock that’s universal if they would only look back to a parent rocking a babe: safety. Predictability.
A challenge I am continually faced with as an autistic adult is the misinformed presumption and resulting behavior of neurotypical people when I do not look at them the in way they expect, want or demand of me. It is challenging because society has put the onus on me to change. Often it does not matter to others why I am different. They just want me to stop being different. Recently I was told directly, “If you want to be treated like a real person then act like one!” Eye contact can be hard for autistics for a variety of reasons. When I was a youngster I received too much bright, bold, painful sensory information from making eye contact. To guard against the intense physical pain I did not engage in eye contact. If my teacher demanded eye contact I obediently did so, but at a price. I would float out of my body, hover up near the ceiling and look down, watching the little girl of me (Endow, 2013). Donna Williams says, “Dissociation is the ability to cut off from what is happening around you or to you. In its simplest form it is daydreaming. It is a skill all children have and which children with autism tend to overdevelop in managing a world they find overwhelming for a whole range of reasons” (Williams, 2013).
My sensory system has changed over time and eye contact does not produce as much pain as it once did. When I am well regulated I can manage the moderate pain I do experience from eye contact in my day-to-day life. However, avoiding eye contact is something I automatically do to minimize the amount of incoming sensory information and thus cut down on pain. I have to remain on high alert so as to catch when I am automatically moving into this eye contact shut down mode or I will not even know when it is happening.
Yet, even when people know eye contact can be painful and that we will not pick up much social information, we are STILL expected to perform the feat for the social comfort of others. Each time we don’t perform the socially expected eye contact people assign negative character attributes to us such as shifty, sneaky, untruthful, disinterested and hiding something.
Imagine how you might feel if you were asked to stop looking at people – to cease all eye contact. Now imagine how much more difficult that would be if each time you did manage not to engage in eye contact you felt physical pain and the only way to relieve that pain was to look at the person even though you knew it would make others unhappy. This is often what we put autistics through when we insist they go against the way their brain does business by forcing them to use typical eye contact” (Endow, 2013).
Educators have been taught that it is essential to get individuals’ attention before beginning instruction and to recapture attention to task when peoples’ demeanors suggest that their attention is waning. To accomplish this task, teachers often first attempt to get attention by cuing “Look at me.” They also often assume that they have individuals’ attention when they “get eye contact” and that those who do not conform cannot be paying attention. Thus, when individuals who have autism seem to avoid looking into the eyes of teachers and others with whom they interact, the strategy that comes most naturally and is often pursued quite intently is the verbal cue “Look at me.” If an individual who has an autism spectrum disorder fails to respond within what is viewed as a reasonable length of time, the cue may be repeated more forcefully. If the person still fails to look as directed, misinterpretations of why the person isn’t “complying” may fuel futile power struggles that only frustrate everyone concerned and further thwart the abilities of individuals with autism to respond. Whether requesting eye contact is a wise approach to focusing attention depends both on the person who has autism and on circumstances surrounding the expectation.
Sometimes getting an individual to “make eye contact” becomes a high priority that falls under the rubric of “compliance and direction following” training. Individualized education programs often include objectives such as “will make eye contact when requested 80% of the time”. Some goals and objectives seem to be stated in context of assumptions that students with autism spectrum disorders have sufficient understanding of social conventions to make routine judgments about where, when, and with whom eye contact is appropriate and expected and/or that they are consistently able to spontaneously initiate and selectively maintain eye contact in social situations. As an example, consider an objective that states, “Will increase eye contact when in social situations with peers. Student will make eye contact X number of times every 10 minutes when involved in shared activities.” Folks who write and strive to achieve such goals and objectives may be as naive in their understanding and interacting with individuals who have autism as individuals with autism are naive at understanding and using social conventions. We need to re- examine assumptions that undergird choices among instructional/interactive strategies, to define purposes that we hope to accomplish, and to candidly assess whether hoped-for outcomes are being met. While attempting to maximize adaptive behaviors on the part of individuals who have autism spectrum disorders, we too must adapt when observed responses clearly indicate that our purposes are not being achieved.
“If you insist that I make eye contact with you, when I’m finished I’ll be able to tell you how many millimeters your pupils changed while I looked into your eyes.”
In addition to difficulties with attending to and interpreting information that is embedded in social context, some have great difficulty with attending to and coordinating two sources of sensory input at once. For example, astute teachers often observe that a student with autism “looks out the window all the time, just doesn’t appear to be paying attention at all, but then can tell me everything I said.” It appears likely that the described student has difficulty with coordinating listening and looking behaviors and, perhaps, with receiving and processing information coming in from multiple sensory channels. Insisting that he make eye contact might well render him unable to take in and store auditory input. Or… he may be able to coordinate looking and listening in some situations but not in others. Educators who are relatively unfamiliar with autism are often understandably perplexed by inconsistencies evident in an individual’s response patterns. There appears to be a natural inclination to assert that, “if he could do it in that situation, I know he can do it in the other…”.
We may not look the interviewer in the eye, especially when it’s our turn to talk. We may look at the conference table surface, the floor, or the framed art just above your head on the wall behind you. Please don’t take that the wrong way. As mentioned, we’re (often extremely) engaged and enthusiastic. Focusing on someone’s eyes may feel like staring (either we’re doing the staring or someone is staring at us, either of which is uncomfortable), which can interfere with our ability to concentrate. Focusing on something other than someone’s eyes allows us to concentrate again. For me, it’s akin to “taking the pressure off”. Again, it’s nothing personal, nothing specific to the interviewer themselves.
A popular and stubborn misconception says that this indicates dishonesty, lying, or otherwise hiding something. This is absolutely not true. Over 40 years of research has completely debunked this myth. It’s also nothing personal against the interviewer (or to whomever else with whom we’re talking); we’re not trying to avoid the person or express disinterest, dislike, or any other negative emotion. It’s simply a matter of discomfort, and this generally applies widely; for those of us who are more uncomfortable making eye contact, we will generally experience this discomfort with almost everyone, maybe except for a few very close family members or friends (if that!). Therefore, please don’t take it as a personal affront, sign of disrespect, sign of disinterest, or “evidence” of dishonesty.
For instance, a big focus of Evie’s therapy was “making eye contact.” I couldn’t understand why this was so important. Finally, I said, “I really don’t care if Evie makes eye contact. I want to find a way for her to communicate what she needs.” Who does eye contact REALLY help? Does it help Evie when it seems aversive to her? Or does it help other people feel more comfortable with Evie?
Looking away from an interlocutor’s face during demanding cognitive activity can help adults answer challenging arithmetic and verbal-reasoning questions (Glenberg, Schroeder, & Robertson, 1998). However, such ‘gaze aversion’ (GA) is poorly applied by 5-year-old school children (Doherty-Sneddon, Bruce, Bonner, Longbotham, & Doyle, 2002). In Experiment 1 we trained ten 5-year-old children to use GA while thinking about answers to questions. This trained group performed significantly better on challenging questions compared with 10 controls given no GA training. In Experiment 2 we found significant and monotonic age-related increments in spontaneous use of GA across three cohorts of ten 5-year-old school children (mean ages: 5;02, 5;06 and 5;08). Teaching and encouraging GA during challenging cognitive activity promises to be invaluable in promoting learning, particularly during early primary years.
I can remember the overwhelming experience having eye contact with others sometimes had on me as a child. Too much bright, bold, painful sensory information was received when directly looking into someone’s eyes for a sustained period of time (see paintings below: Look Me In the Eye, Buzzing Bones, SIZZLE POP and STRIKE ME). Coping came by disengaging from the experience. I would hover up by the ceiling and watch the girl below who was me. When the girl looked into the eyes of people I would use the too much information she got to fashion alternatives to those eyes that would cut down on the overwhelming sensory information (see paintings below: Eye Fish, Eye Trees, Eye Land and Eye Tulip).
I don’t need to look at you to pay attention to you. Actually, looking at you while you talk is very distracting to me. It may look like I am playing with something in my hands while my gaze is someplace far away, but I’m here with you – working to process things in my own way.
To the outside world I seem disinterested and aloof, but I promise I am here with you, working things out in my own way. So much is happening below the surface. When I appear to be off in my own world, I’m not as far away as I seem.
According to the study, looking someone in the eye can result in unpleasant overstimulation of the brain for people with autism. “The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to lack of concern,” said Nouchine Hadjikhani, a study author and a Harvard associate professor of radiology. “Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.” In other words, when people with autism don’t look others in the eye, it doesn’t mean they don’t care, said Hadjikhani. “It’s because it’s too much for them,” she said.
“Forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them,” Hadjikhani said.
I sometimes close my eyes to better parse the speech coming at me. I swim in sensory overwhelm. I must pick a firehose. Eyes front preserves the illusion of compliance, so I’ll stop listening. I’m not interested anyway.
The global view about liars is that they look away from you (avert their gaze) when they are lying. This is a false belief, which can be backed up with 40 years of research. What you will often find is that liar’s will often consciously engage in greater eye contact, because it is commonly (but mistakenly) believed that direct eye contact is a sign of truthfulness.
For these reasons, no relationship exists between eye gaze and deception.
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