During a conversation, people consider eye contact to be one of the most important aspects of showing interest, attention and sometimes even respect. But keeping eye contact does not come naturally or easily to everyone. There are several reasons why some people find it very difficult to look someone in the eye for an extended amount of time. This reason doesn’t always have to be a lack of interest or focus, it can be social anxiety, shyness or in some cases a symptom of being on the autism spectrum and that is what we are going to discuss.
The inability to keep eye contact is one of the most easily recognised symptoms of autism. A lot of children on the autism spectrum find it increasingly hard to look other people in the eyes and this is sometimes misinterpreted as them being uninterested or not focusing on what the other person is saying even though most of the time that is not the case at all.
Why do children with autism find it difficult to keep eye contact?
There are several reasons why some children on the autism spectrum might find it hard to keep eye contact. But we can narrow it down to some of the most common reasons and go from there.
Should you encourage your autistic child to make direct eye contact?
It depends. Test it gradually. But first thing is figure out the reason why you want them to make eye contact in the first place. Is it because they don’t pay attention unless they do or is it just a social expectancy?
If it’s an attention thing, then during conversation try prompting them to look at you and keep track of their reaction and whether the problem is them remembering to make eye contact in the first place or them finding it difficult to physically make eye contact.
With time, some autistic children learn to make eye contact, and many will naturally make it when they are relaxed, but if they find it too difficult or it just makes their attention worse because they’re putting too much effort into it then don’t force it upon them. You can try to teach them to look at other parts of the face like the mouth or they can look at a point over the person's shoulder for example. If keeping their eyes fixed is too hard, they can also learn to nod occasionally, or make confirmation sounds during the conversation so the person in front of them knows they are paying attention even if they’re not making eye contact.
First and foremost, making eye contact is a social expectation. In some cultures looking a person in the eye, especially an older person, is a sign of disrespect not the other way around. And for some people, making eye contact can trigger their social anxiety and make it harder for them to carry a conversation instead of the expectation of eye contact helping with keeping someone’s attention.
Your autistic child might have different reasons but they’re reasons all the same and should be put into consideration. Encourage them to try but know their limits and always, always be supportive no matter the outcome.
You can also check out our Top Tips video about autistic children and eye contact: