Eye contact – a simple concept, but a challenge for many children on the spectrum. From my perspective, eye contact is an important method of communication in social interaction that can provide a wealth of information. Often, many of us don’t even think about making eye contact, it happens so naturally. However, this is not the case for some children and adults with ASD. In fact, it can even be a source of great anxiety and stress. There are many who suggest that we should teach eye contact, as it is an essential life skill. I would say that it all depends upon the child.
Take Ryan for example. When he was two years of age, we would work on the drill: “Look At Me.” If he did, he received a reinforcer. It sounds very basic, but it was a starting point. This was pretty easy when he and I were sitting at home practicing. However, with unfamiliar surroundings and people, Ryan had trouble applying the skill. Over time, he improved in his eye contact with others, especially if the topic being discussed interested him. His eye contact definitely decreases when he’s nervous, anxious, or stressed. When he’s “silly,” his eye contact is perfect, because he knows he’s doing something he’s not allowed to do.
Today, I’m not concerned about whether or not he maintains eye contact; I am more interested in his level of conversational engagement, his attention to task, and if he is demonstrating appropriate behaviors. Fortunately, most adults will stay engaged with him even if he chooses not to give eye contact, although this is not always the case with peers.
For parents who are facing issues with eye contact, I encourage you to read this Autism Speaks blog: http://bit.ly/1Kc6LVZ. One tip I’ll pass along that I found helpful with Ryan is to encourage him to look at a person’s shoulder while he/she is speaking, if direct eye contact was too uncomfortable. This worked for him when he was in a job interview situation and was quite nervous. He would look at the employer’s shoulder and it would appear that he was actually giving him/her eye contact.
What has worked in your house? I would love to hear your tips and stories!