Eye Contact for those on the Autism Spectrum
Jaclyn Hunt, MA, CAS
Recently, a parent of an adult client of mine expressed concern that his son does not make eye contact. He wanted to take his son to a hypnotist to “train” him to be able to look people in the eyes. He asked me my opinion on the matter and I told him bluntly that it was a horrible idea. Needless to say, he was shocked and asked why I thought that. He had considered the idea for quite some time and thought it would be a great way for his son to get over his discomfort of looking people in the eyes when he interacts with them.
A popular statistic is that 85% of communication is non-verbal. What this means is that most people on the autism spectrum could be missing up to 85% of what is being conveyed in any particular social interaction. That is a huge discrepancy compared to the general population and the main reason why so many on the spectrum are “lost” when it comes to being social. Studies have shown (see Dr. Ami Klin’s work at Emory University) that people on the spectrum attune to the mouth or outside distractors in a social situation. Eye gaze has been measured and shows that neurotypical people watch the eyes for meaning and context more than anything else in a social moment. To the autistic mind it is almost as if people are communicating telepathically. The truth is they are speaking a non-verbal language that was never specifically taught to them in school or at home. This language is more intuitive in the neurotypical mind and absent or lacking to varying degrees in the autistic mind. However, it can be taught to some extent. It all depends on the person and if the teacher has a good understanding of how to break that language down into teachable parts.
One of the first things I discuss with my clients is the non-verbal language they are missing out on and show them that if you actually look at another person while you speak to them you will increase your odds of noticing body language. The more you notice the more likely it is to learn what that language means. This often intrigues my clients and they wish to learn more. I give them a good reason to make eye contact. I never simply tell them they have to or that it is important just “because.” They must be taught the reason why it is important first. Only then will they take the first steps to learn to make eye contact appropriately and with a purpose if it is something they have the potential to learn depending on their own unique skill sets. To the neurotypical mind it is an automatic visually intuitive skill, to the autistic mind they need to be made aware of the purpose before it turns into a more automatic skill over time through practice.
Additionally, those on the spectrum are often walled up in a shell and are not always aware of the body language they are sharing with the world. Many of my clients do not know that if they look down or away from a person that they are non-verbally telling that person that they are uninterested in them. Clients who desire relationships so badly are actually non-verbally telling people they are uninterested. Another wonderful reason to make eye contact, to show the person or people you are with that you are truly interested in them and what they have to say. “No one ever told me that before,” is a sentence I often hear from my clients.
Still, eye contact encompasses much more than these basic meanings. It is not easy to learn how to make oneself vulnerable safely and look into the soul of another person so casually. It takes time, practice and patience. Some of my clients may never be able to make adequate eye contact. However, there are ways to get around the difficulties. If a client is aware that he is not making eye contact he can actually offer a verbal explanation of his behavior, utilizing his great strength as a verbal person and telling the other person he is communicating with that eye contact is often difficult with him but he just wants you to be aware of it and that “I am truly interested in what you have to say so please continue the discussion or let me know if you are uncertain of my own feelings at any given moment so that I may have the opportunity to clarify them to you.” There are various ways to express your social difficulties in an acceptable manner. I have found in my work that most people are highly accepting and understanding when they are aware of the other person’s social difficulties.
There is no other language as complex as the non-verbal aspect of any society. In fact, in each culture or society these rules can change dramatically. I tend not to worry about this too much with my clients. They usually need to learn how to navigate 2 to 3 similar environments such as school, work, and the local community. It can certainly be daunting to start from scratch when learning the non-verbal aspect of social communication, however everyone can make progress when shown how step-by-step and having a thorough verbal explanation provided for each and every social situation they encounter. Clients frequently can’t wait to tell me of a great social failure but are actually happy because they have discovered why without asking me. It takes many failures in social learning to begin to learn and predict what will happen in future interactions. Failures are notoriously avoided by many on the Autism Spectrum so I work with small, doable social goals until each and every client’s confidence rises to the level where an occasional failure is no longer devastating but instead a true learning experience.
Therefore, eye contact taught for the wrong reasons will become inappropriate eye contact. Any social behavior taught for the wrong reasons will become inappropriate and ineffective purposeless behavior. I only teach purposeful behavior. Purposeful for my clients and for those they are interacting with. I urge all parents and professionals who work with those on the spectrum to adopt that same method. It is imperative to teach purposefully and avoid teaching rote behaviors. I don’t want to see my clients staring at potential friends, spouses, employers, or law enforcement. I want my clients to learn proper social communication verbally and non verbally. If this hope is unrealistic for a particular client it is much better for them to use an alternative method of expression and understanding rather than learning the wrong reasons for the right behavior because then the behavior holds no meaning and only true, meaningful communication is what I expect from all those I coach.