The lack of eye contact is one of the first noticeable signs of Autism. This becomes clear somewhere between 13 and 24 months. However, trying it can be for parents, all is not lost. A proactive program can be used to increase eye contact in children with Autism.
Most children with Autism start to develop normally, but after their first birthday their temperament and socialization begins to change. Children with Autism start to avoid interaction with other people. Things that would make them smile and giggle before, now makes them cry. Before they would look at faces and recognize people. Then as if over night, children with Autism will wiggle and jerk their heads purposely not looking at other faces. When a parent tries to turn the children and look into his/her eyes, he/she with look up or down, anywhere but at the parents eyes.
Why does this happen and why is it important to correct it? Autism is first and foremost a socialization disorder. Eye contact is very personal. It requires a certain level of self esteem to look another person in the eye. Take for example, an interview situation. The person being interviewed feels nervous and unsure of what the interviewer will say or do. It is very difficult to maintain eye contact and often it is easier to look around the room or focus on an inanimate object. The person being interviewed will do anything not to look the other person in the eye and reveal their true feelings. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul.
It is important to teach and reassure children with Autism that it is safe and socially important to look at other people. In order to let someone else know that you hear or understand them it is necessary to look at them. Especially, with the lack of language that most children with Autism have, they cannot answer verbally.
This is actually rather simple procedure, but will be met with resistance which adds a level of difficultly.
1.) Use an object that the child seems interested in or is attached to. For children with autism this can be just about anything, a blanket, toys, or household objects. It needs to be small. Nothing bigger than a face. Do not use anything that they hold all the time. This object needs to be removed from sight for a length of time, so security objects will not work.
2.) Hold the object at arms length to the side of your body in front of the child.
3.) Wiggle or shake the object to get the child to look at it. DO NOT make any noise yourself. Let the object draw all of their attention.
4.) Once the child looks that the object of the count of five, give it to them to hold for about 10 mins. They may cry when it is taken away just redirect with a security object.
5.) Remove object from sight for an hour and then reintroduce the object.
6.) This time hold the object away from the body, get their attention, then move the object half way to your body. Hold their attention for the count of five and let them have the object for 10 mins.
7.) Repeat the process, halving the distance each time, until the object is in front of your face.
8.) Once they are able to look at the object in front of your face, then silently make smiling and surprised faces at them. This will get their attention and learn that it is safe and secure.
9.) When the eyes begin match yours, say lightly "Look at me". This will teach them to pair the phrase with your eyes.
10.) Once they can look at your eyes consistently, phase out the toy and just use the phrase 'Look at me.' Sometimes you might need to hold up your finger to catch their gaze and bring it back to your face.
The method does work. My son has classical autism and is now 11 years old. Even as I write this he is moving my face to his so that I look him in the eye. He wants my attention. Try it. Good luck!
Dawn has an 11 year old son with Classical Autism.
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