As parents of children on the spectrum, one of the questions that therapists and physicians constantly ask is if our children have “good eye contact.” This phrase is so very general and somewhat misleading as an important symptom and characteristic of Autism. Eye contact is important, but not the way most people understand.
My son would look at me or his teacher in the eye for a moment and quite often. THIS is not eye contact. This is a glance. That split second where he would look at my face, and possibly even at my eyes, was not enough time for him to take in any information. If that were to continue, he would miss opportunities to learn about human interaction.
Before we even begin to speak, our faces convey intention, mood, and meaning. I can express love in my eyes and smile when I look at my son. I can express sadness in my cheeks and chin when I’m holding back tears. Our faces tell so much about who we are and how we interact with others, and if a child is not looking for those clues, they will never truly understand how to communicate.
Think about how hard it is to determine when someone is being sarcastic over the phone. And some of us have even had text chats escalate into fights because the intention was missing from the conversations. A child who avoids “eye contact” would never understand those subtle clues and might even talk and respond blankly, just like a text message.
Before my son was diagnosed, one of the first signs that led to worry about his development was the lack of eye contact and response to his name. We often joked that the reason he didn’t answer to “Simon” was because we had so many cute nicknames for him. Once therapy started, however, it was very apparent that he was shutting us out. By only focusing on what he held in his hand at the moment, he was starting to disappear into his own little world.
One of the first things we addressed during Early Intervention therapies was his lack of eye contact. Anytime he attempted to speak or sign, I brought his hand to my face. His eyes followed the movement of his arm which led him to look at me. We practiced this hand-over-hand routine for nearly a year until he realized he would have to look at me in order to have his needs met. This helped him understand the importance of looking at someone during a conversation.
Once he became more comfortable with looking at me or his teacher when making a request, then we moved onto identifying feelings. We used flash cards and toys with painted expressions to create exaggerated social stories. I also talked about emotions while watching videos with him. We pointed out sad faces, silly faces, and mad faces. These games helped him learn the value of facial meaning along with dialogue.
Eye contact shouldn’t be quantified for children on the spectrum. I know myself, I don’t always look directly at people when I’m talking to them. The more I’m conscience of where I’m looking during a conversation, the more uncomfortable I feel, and that’s not what we should be imposing on our children. The important lesson for our kids is to learn to look at faces, for more than a gaze, to pick up on social cues and emotions.
Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.
*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*