SHOULD WE INSIST ON EYE
CONTACT WITH PEOPLE WHO HAVE AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS?
Contributed By Rozella Stewart
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 different—usually very different—students who have
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 (such as their
reflection in one's eyeglasses). 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.
Mothers often report that their family member
who has autism watches his mother's eyes and, having had experience
with certain looks before, anticipates what is coming next. Few
mothers report having a sense of sharing mutually meaningful socioemotional
messages through such encounters. Some folks who have autism gradually
learn to think about social expectations around eye contact and
to make an effort to use it periodically. Many appear to become
more adept at making eye contact as comfort and competencies in
social situations increase. Some report that their ability to make
eye contact depends on context. For example, when an individual
is comfortable and feeling relatively competent, he may be able
to tolerate such exchanges. When in confusingly complex, overloading
and other anxiety-prompting situations, the same individual may
overtly avoid eye contact. Some individuals appear to use eye contact
from a young age; it is difficult to determine the extent to which
those individuals are able to read subtle social messages that are
typically conveyed via the eyes. Many seem to become more comfortable
with eye contact, as well as better at reading some of the messages,
over time. Few, it seems, report that eye contact ever becomes a
really useful means for either receiving or sharing mutually understood
messages. Few appear to feel confident concerning their abilities
to read messages that may be conveyed via the eyes of various people
in their lives.
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.
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
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.
A number of "higher functioning" folks
who have autism have described difficulties with making eye contact.
One of the more humorous explanations was shared over lunch with
a brilliant, well- educated, 45-year-old man who has Asperger's
Syndrome. With a mixture of cynicism, good humor and pleading for
understanding, he discussed his difficulty with making eye contact,
but even more to the point, with expectations that he "read"
and respond to the subtle socioemotional messages conveyed via the
eyes. In summarizing his message, he said, "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
Several individuals who have autism have described
similar difficulties, if not such analytical approaches. Some candidly
share exasperation with folks who insist on eye contact while demonstrating
considerable ignorance concerning ways interactive sensory, motor,
social and emotional anomalies impact one's abilities to orient
and make sense of environments and expectations. People who have
Autism Spectrum Disorders have difficulty with reading even the
most overt social cues in context. They have extraordinary difficulty
with reading more subtle body language, including messages often
conveyed via the 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...".
In fact, learning styles of students who have
Autism Spectrum Disorders, as well as of other students, vary tremendously
across tasks. We adults often view dissimilar tasks as if they were
similar or even the same. Once learning (change within the individual)
has occurred, subsequent tasks, though they appear similar, are
never the same. Learning builds on prior learning and each successive
challenge occurs in context of change that has occurred in response
to past challenges. Each subsequent learning task is assimilated
in context of changed comfort levels, values, attitudes, and/or
behavioral competencies affected by prior experience. Each new task,
even though it appears similar to us, is likely to be perceived
as a new challenge to a person who has autism. There are many reasons
why we simply cannot assume that because an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder did something a month ago, a week ago, or yesterday,
he can also do it today. This "leap of faith", as opposed
to efforts to better understand possible difficulties that the person
may be having, too often characterizes attitudes regarding individuals'
abilities to make eye contact either spontaneously or "on demand."
Figuring out how different individuals take in,
store, coordinate, plan and execute behavioral responses, as well
as what may detract from this process, and how they perceive the
actions of others, involves both art and science. If we are lucky
(and, hopefully, also skilled facilitators of learning), instructional
efforts impact behavior in ways that render subsequent tasks and
expectations easier than initial trials. Consider the individual
who looks out the window with apparent disinterest (if not to "get
someone's goat") but later demonstrates that he knows the basics
of what was going on and has, indeed, memorized auditory input.
Given familiarity and some acquired agility with the auditory information
he has learned and having achieved greater comfort, he may (or may
not) now be able to make eye contact in context of that familiar
body of information for some individually idiosyncratic length of
time. However, whether he intuits anything meaningful during that
encounter is more than a rhetorical question. We don't know what
he sees; we should probably suspect that messages he is reading,
if any, are very different from those we think we are conveying.
Jean-Paul Bovee is a 30-year-old "high functioning"
man who was diagnosed with autism at age three and a half. He has
described his difficulties with eye contact in words that are echoed
by many individuals who have the disorder:
"Eye contact is something that I have always
had trouble with. It does not come naturally to me and I do not
appreciate having to give it all of the time, especially to people
that I do not know. All of the stress that is put on doing it makes
me more nervous, tense, and scared. Doing it also assumes that I
can read the message in another person's eyes. Don't count on it!
I can look at a person's eyes and not be able to tell what they
are saying to me...
...as a child, my eye contact was much worse than
it is right now. People without autism could not understand why
I would not look them in the eye... just because I am not making
eye contact with you does not mean that I am not listening to you
or paying attention to you. I can concentrate better not having
to keep eye contact at the same time. I tell people, 'You have a
choice. Do you want a conversation or do you want eye contact? You
will not get both unless I am comfortable with you and do not have
to concentrate so much on the eye contact'."
When developing strategies aimed at focusing and
maintaining attention on the part of folks who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, we need to consider idiosyncratic ways that individuals
take in and process information. We need to recognize how conventional
social expectations may, in fact, interfere with learning for some.
Guiding individuals in focusing and engaging in tasks specifically
related to the activity at hand is often more effective than trying
to obtain attention through eye contact and then expecting that
the person can quickly shift attention to a set of task-related
stimuli. When, where, with whom, and whether to insist on eye contact
with people who have Autism Spectrum Disorders remains controversial.
But... the need to define the purposes we wish to achieve through
our instructions and expectations, and to assess (through individuals'
responses) whether those purposes are being served is clear. Eye
contact is a very social, almost intimate, type of interaction.
When, whether, and why to insist that individuals engage in that
exchange are questions that, to answer wisely, require ongoing scrutiny,
understanding, and flexibility on the part of people who interact
with folks who experience challenges common to Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Source: Bovee, J.P. (1999). My experiences with
autism and how it related to "Theory of Mind" - Part 1.
Advocate, 32(5), 18-19.
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
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