“LOOK AT ME” – No one likes to be forced to do anything, especially kids. As a parent, you know it’s difficult for your child with autism to make eye contact, which sometimes leads you to say: “Look at me.” As parents, caretakers, and teachers, we sometimes find ourselves demanding that our kids give eye contact since, out of love, we want them to learn socially acceptable behavior to better navigate this complex world. But when a child with autism is ordered to look at someone, regardless if he does so, the result often lacks meaning. As a Speech-Language Pathologist for over 20 years, I’m thrilled to see thousands of my students experience the power of meaningful eye contact! Adults, especially parents, can promote healthy, natural eye contact with their kids which leads to richer conversations for deeper relationships.
Children with autism tend to look away from others’ faces, preferring to look at actions or objects which are less complex and more predictable. This may be due to confusion about all of the meaning of spontaneous facial and body movements during communication on top of understanding and expressing the actual words spoken. That’s a lot going on! Also, this intake of information can make sensory-motor coordination of eye contact too physically difficult. For example, when one of my elementary school students was required to maintain eye contact, he described a queasy feeling like motion sickness. He said it was “piercing” his brain to fix his gaze on other’s eyes because of the micro movements of the other’s eyes like blinking and shifts in gaze. Well-meaning, the boy’s mother tried a different approach to make eye contact directly in between the eyes. Unfortunately, he still felt forced as he continued to be under unnecessary stress which interfered with his ability to focus on the communication at hand.
Frustrated, the mother’s next decision was to give up on eye contact since she felt that he was able to understand interactions through the sense of hearing the words spoken. However, this reduces a child to simply become a “responder” who reacts to spoken words, which even in seemingly clear-cut situations, isn’t always an accurate way to interpret communication. Take for instance, while my student’s teacher was teaching a lesson, he was laughing, reciting lines from a movie, and playing with his pencils. Trying to be discrete, the teacher walked up very close to his desk and was silent. Not seeing her very important nonverbal cues, he was unaware of the meaning behind her close proximity and dissatisfied facial expression. Missing her message, he continued to be disruptive.
All communication starts with observation of the person with whom you are speaking. Here are 4 ways to encourage rather than force your child to make eye contact naturally during conversations. As your child learns the value of eye contact, your relationship will grow closer. That’s worth everything.
1 GIVE A CLEAR REASON FOR EYE CONTACT: Think about the reasons why you want or need your child to look at you rather than just to satisfy the social expectation. Maybe you have a desired object in your hands that you wish to offer your child; or, you want to show your child an important facial expression to match your words such as caution, silliness, or love; or, you want your child to refer to your face to gain further information from you. Otherwise, your child will rely on others to verbally cue him when to give eye contact, making it difficult to become a natural, consistent part of his daily communication.