Thinking About Eye Contact

Apr 23, 2017 Vicki RDI, Autism

"When humans want to attend and focus on something, we shift our gaze to that subject. If we force a person to look at us, we are eliminating our best chance to understand what they are thinking." - Dr. Steven Gutstein

ABA Eye Contact Video

Most people want our loved ones to want to look at us. But teaching "eye contact" as a discrete skill will rarely achieve that goal. This video is an example of a child being taught to make eye contact for a specific length of time, based on an adult prompt, and in exchange for a reward. I don't know this child or his family, but I can imagine that his parents are motivated by love and a desire that he learn to look at others. They may be concerned about the amount of information he's missing out on by not looking at their faces, or about him appearing visibly different from his typically developing peers. 

While it's dangerous to make sweeping assumptions based on a four and a half minute video, the clip raises some important questions for parents who are thinking about their own goals for their children.

* Does this activity help the child to understand the purpose of social referencing?

* Does this activity feel pleasant, meaningful, or intrinsically rewarding for the child?

* Does this activity help to strengthen the parent-child relationship?

Alternatives to prompting eye contact

If your child isn't making eye contact, instead of prompting her to look at you, be a detective! She is likely looking around at many things, and giving you clues about her thinking. Being curious about your child's perspective is a very important foundation for building a strong relationship with her.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your child's use of eye contact.

* What IS she looking at? Why? 

* If he does look into your eyes, why? What did you do (or not do) that helped to motivate him to reference your face? 

* If she's looking away from your face, why? Some autistic people find faces too intense, even painful to look at. Does your child feel overwhelmed by your face? Would it help if you used a softer facial expression, or toned down your body language? 

* Is your child not referencing you because he doesn't yet realize that your face can help him learn more about your thinking? Would it help if you exaggerated your facial expression, so that it's easier for him to perceive what your face is communicating?

* Are you giving your child too much language to process, so that she simply doesn't have the time or mental energy to look at you?