Autism and eye contact: Eye contact is an essential aspect of social communication that plays a significant role in establishing connections and understanding nonverbal cues. Across cultures, people often perceive eye contact as a sign of attentiveness, honesty, and respect. However, the importance of eye contact is not universal. The way it is interpreted and utilized varies significantly from one culture to another.
This fact is critical to remember when considering the challenges of autism and eye contact. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience difficulties making eye contact. They struggle to understand its use, grasp its importance in communication, and often feel uncomfortable when someone insists on holding their gaze.
At ABA Centers of America, we believe that autism awareness involves making a friendly and accessible world for neurodivergent individuals. This process involves understanding eye contact in the context of autism, how to address it, and why it shouldn’t be stigmatized. This article explores the challenges individuals face with autism and eye contact, discussing potential reasons behind these difficulties and how to make them feel safe and welcome despite obstacles.
1. The Significance of Eye Contact
Eye contact is an essential aspect of social communication that plays a significant role in establishing connections and understanding nonverbal cues. Humans aren’t alone in this behavior, as many animals engage in eye contact for various social reasons.
Eye contact during a conversation or interaction signals interest, attention, and emotional connection. This sense of connection fosters trust and rapport, promoting better communication and cooperation between individuals.
Researchers have also linked eye contact to developing empathy between individuals. Looking into each other’s eyes activates the mirror neuron system in the brain, which is associated with compassion and understanding others’ emotions. This neurological process helps individuals connect on a deeper emotional level. Eye contact also signals honesty, love, and respect.
Despite its importance in Western societies, not every culture prizes eye contact. From an evolutionary perspective and as seen in animals, it can signal aggression and submission, reinforcing hierarchies.
In some Eastern cultures, such as Japan and China, prolonged direct eye contact may be considered impolite. Instead, individuals may engage in indirect eye contact or avert their gaze as a sign of respect and humility. This difference in cultural norms underscores the complexity of eye contact as a communication tool and highlights the need for cultural sensitivity in cross-cultural interactions. This sensitivity becomes doubly important when dealing with individuals on the spectrum.
2. Autism and Eye Contact
One of the hallmark features of ASD is the difficulty individuals experience with eye contact. This aspect of social interaction can be notably puzzling, as it becomes difficult to ascertain if someone on the spectrum is paying attention during conversation.
The most essential advice we can give you is not to stigmatize this behavior. Just as many cultures find eye contact rude, individuals with ASD have several valid neurological reasons for feeling uncomfortable. As you’ll see below, not making eye contact isn’t a sign of disinterest or disregard but an adaptation that helps them communicate and understand the world.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, and researchers found key differences in brain patterns when studying the reactions of people with ASD to stimuli. Sounds, sights, tastes, and other sensory experiences that are agreeable to us can be painful or overwhelming to someone on the spectrum.
Neurodivergent individuals experience heightened sensitivity to visual stimuli. Direct eye contact can feel uncomfortable, leading individuals to avoid or limit eye contact to regulate sensory input and reduce anxiety. This coping mechanism is not out of a lack of care or respect. Instead, it enables them to have a conversation without awkwardness and unease.
Challenges Reading Non-Verbal Cues
Individuals with ASD often struggle to understand and interpret facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues conveyed through eye contact. As a result, they may miss critical social information during conversations. Many neurodivergent people try their hardest to address this, approaching social interactions piecemeal. They are also aware of their problems with social interaction and feel profound social anxiety toward being disliked, misunderstood, or demeaned.
Instead of making eye contact, many choose to get comfortable in their surroundings first. People with ASD prefer routine and familiar settings, and to ease into a comfortable exchange of ideas involves scanning their environment and getting used to it. Rather than paying attention to your eyes, they may focus on your hand movements, intonations, or the ideas behind your words. Never chastise someone with ASD for not doing this, as it’s insensitive, counterproductive, and could end their earnest attempts to communicate.
Social interactions can be mentally demanding for individuals with ASD, as they may need to consciously focus on simultaneously processing verbal and nonverbal cues. When conversing, you might be able to tune out background noise like a running fan, loud music, or the chattering of a nearby group of people. The same doesn’t hold for individuals on the spectrum, who will be keenly aware of distracting stimuli.
Eye contact requires additional cognitive effort, making it difficult to divide their attention effectively. If you force someone with ASD to hold eye contact, they may experience burnout. They might have to disengage in the middle of a conversation to take a break, or if the conversation is over, they will need a quiet place to lie down and decompress. Never place them in a situation where following social conventions would significantly strain their well-being.
3. How to Address Autism and Eye Contact
While it’s clear that eye contact is an unnecessary social nicety, many people with ASD still feel a need to master the skill and fit in. Eye contact can be a powerful tool in academic, professional, and interpersonal settings when you need to say something with gravitas and make someone feel the weight of your words.
Many individuals with autism can maintain eye contact and excel at it. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the best way to teach this skill. ABA is the gold-standard autism therapy, individualized to address the specific necessities of clients and families.
Through positive reinforcement, play therapy, and acting out situations in a comfortable environment, individuals with ASD make strides and learn abilities that help them communicate, relate, succeed, and attain independence. These are the reasons why ABA has remained the best in autism care for decades, backed by a robust body of research that shows its efficacy.
ABA Centers of America and Autism Therapy
At ABA Centers of America, we employ the brightest minds in ABA therapy to help with any challenges you or your loved one on the spectrum might have. Our ethos is compassion and efficacy, and our individualized plans ensure that individuals with ASD work on their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and grow in unprecedented ways.
Call 844-923-4222 or message our website to make strides for a brighter, autism-friendly future.