Help Your Child with Autism Build Stronger Bonds through Eye Contact
“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.
2. USE INDIRECT WAYS:
When possible, use indirect ways to entice your child. Make eye contact an end result, not the main focus. This will allow her to think more about the situation so it becomes part of her natural behavior. For example, while in the hallway with his other classmates and me, another elementary school student of mine would always walk ahead. Without addressing anyone, he would blurt out questions. When no one answered him, he would become angry. After giving him the opportunity to experience this negative impact due to lack of eye contact, I would reply, “No one answered you because we don’t know who you are asking.” Sometimes he would call my name and/or tap me without eye contact while asking a question like, “Is it outdoor recess today?” When he thought that I didn’t respond, he would get upset, saying that he did call my name and tap me to get my attention. I would reply, “I DID answer you”. He told me that he didn’t hear me. I responded that I answered with my head and hands through a head nod and pointing to the recess schedule. I explained that because sometimes people don’t “speak” with their voices, he must always look at the person to be sure of the communication.
Other indirect verbal methods (using language, or words):
Call your child’s name using a tone of voice in which you expect him to look at you and wait for eye contact, or combine with the suggestions below.
Imply that eye contact is needed at the moment: “Your eyes are not looking at my eyes.” “If you look at my face, you will know how I feel.”
Give confusing commands so that your child might look at you to clarify:
“Please open it and close that.”
“Give those to them.”
Indirect nonverbal methods (using gestures):
Physically bring your child close to you so that his eyes might wander toward you. Go toward her eyes and say:
“Now I can see your eyes, and you can see my eyes.” This method should be used with caution because you, as opposed to your child, are the one making the effort to do this action
Catch her eye with outrageous stuff on your head or face (e.g., a clown nose, fake mustache, huge sunglasses, a weird wig). It’s possible that in the future she might look at you again to see whether you are wearing other odd items.
This method should also be used sparingly and only when other methods don’t easily attract her attention because it is highly unnatural and unreasonable to constantly repeat
3. USE DIRECT WAYS:
Regardless of the communication ability level of your child, sometimes he will not give eye contact through the use of indirect methods. Sometimes he will require direct instruction to make eye contact. As discussed previously, it is best to have a clear reason.
Verbal: Call your child’s name using a tone of voice in which you expect him to look at you, followed by either:
“Look at my eyes.” or “Look at me.”
Nonverbal: Move a desired item, or simply your finger, from his eyes toward your eyes.
~or~ Cover the sides of his eyes with your hands to allow him to find your eyes.
The method you choose depends on the social situation. Other aspects of eye contact to consider include how long the contact lasts, how often contact is made, if contact is made while your child’s attention is focused on another activity or if he is not occupied.
Be sure to acknowledge and praise your child for looking at you. Widen your eyes, smile, and praise such as, “I’m glad you are looking at me.” With you as a guide, your child can see the importance of eye contact. Soon, your child will make eye contact more and more with you as well as with others while he or she understands and enjoys the communication. Eye contact is the most basic yet most powerful way to communicate and bond with your child—and have your child get closer to others. -KKS