Thursday, June 24, 2010

Making Sense of a Lack of Eye 'I' Contact in Individuals With Autism

"Sometimes I practice looking at someone directly to see what it feels like. If I practice long enough maybe it will feel okay to do. I notice that this is important, but it goes against my rules. If somebody made me look at him in the eye, I would probably do it, but you better believe that I would hate him. I will look someone in the eye when I am ready and do it in my own time and space. If someone is trying to fix himself that part is just not ready yet. Have you figured out that I am very stubborn? It's not that I like being stubborn, but I need to protect myself."

Let's make sense out of this autistic child's experience. We can only infer what is going on within him. He seems to be telling us that eye contact does not come naturally to him. He also might be saying, "leave me alone and do not force me to look you in the eye." If he is forced, he is saying he will resent that person's interference. Finally he is telling us he is trying to fix his situation and does not want to be intruded upon by others.

What do we do about this child who cannot look at us directly? This is a quandary for us because as typical people we know that when good communication is taking place the individual is direct and focused on the other person. With the person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this is not the case. In fact it appears to be just the opposite. The urgency is to want the person with ASD to be in the world and be like us. This may cause us to force or demand the child to use eye contact. I believe this is putting the cart before the horse.

As we know people with ASD struggle with communication and relationships with others. Eye contact stands out as a nonverbal gesture that feels troublesome for those who work with or have children with autism. I believe that the child will start to be more direct with his eyes when he is ready. Thus we need to be patient and let it happen in the normal course of the child's development.

Some thoughts to think about regarding eye contact:

1) the child is not deliberately being difficult by not using eye contact,
2) his body will not let him use his nonverbal gestures as we might be familiar with,
3) this does not mean that the lack of eye contact cannot change over time,
4) as the child develops his ability to communicate verbally, his use of direct eye contact will develop as well,
5) in fact it might be the last nonverbal gesture he will be able to conquer. This will vary from child to child,
6) eye contact is a nonverbal (gesture) communication from the unconscious of a person,
7) when communication is good we say that the person is congruent. Their verbal communication is complimented by their nonverbal gestures (eye contact being only one of many nonverbal gestures). This means that the person will use direct eye contact when he feels more comfortable with his verbal communication and his relationships with others. Eye contact demonstrates the individual's confidence and self-esteem, and finally
8) a way to think about eye contact is that the child will use 'eye' contact when he can use 'I' contact.

Karen Savlov is a psychoanalyst and Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Los Angeles, California. My specialty is Autism Spectrum Disorders, anger, dissociation, depression, anxiety and relationships. For new and creative ways to think about autism read and follow my blog at I can also be followed on Twitter at Autism Thoughts.

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