When most people say, “Look at me!”, they generally really mean, “Please listen carefully to me.” Eye contact is generally associated with attentive listening. But, what about the times when eye contact and careful listening are not closely related?
No one would insist upon eye contact during a conversation with a person with limited vision. It would be understood that the person’s ability to maintain eye contact has nothing to do with the person’s ability to listen.
One of the earliest recognizable symptoms of autism is a difference in eye contact. Newborn babies can’t maintain eye contact, but parents anticipate that, within a few months, their infants will be making steady eye contact with them. Autism is generally diagnosed in early childhood; parents will likely note that the child did not make reliable eye contact at the typical milestones.
Some people with autism have no problem with eye contact, but many have learned to make or maintain eye contact only after years of careful practice. Even then, the act of maintaining eye contact may be uncomfortable. In fact, the effort to maintain eye contact may actually interfere with the ability to closely listen to what the other person has to say.
Imagine having a conversation while standing on one leg. For the first few seconds, it is easy, but the longer the conversation continues, the harder it is to concentrate on the conversation while maintaining balance on one leg. Eventually, all of the concentration moves to balancing on one leg, leaving no room for focusing on the conversation.
Rather than asking a person with autism to make eye contact, think about where the focus really should be. If you are reviewing a task list, you might say, “Let’s look at this task list together.” If you are giving verbal information, you might say, “I’m giving you some important information; you may want to take notes.” Recognize that if you insist upon eye contact, the person with autism may not be able to listen well and retain the information you are sharing.
nonPareil Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of building better futures for adults with autism. For more information, visit www.npusa.org.