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Autism and Eye Contact

April is Autism Acceptance Month! Let's work together to better understand the perspectives of our autistic friends & family by busting myths about autism.

Myth: Establishing eye contact is necessary for the development of joint attention, social communication skills, attention, and language comprehension.

Fact: While autistic people have varying levels of comfort with eye contact, many autistic individuals have shared that minimizing eye contact improves their ability to process language and maintain focus and comfort in a conversation. In the words of Anouk, the creator of autism_sketches on Instagram, “Eye contact feels very unnatural for me and can be very draining… I lose the ability to concentrate on what is being said and get very anxious.” This common anecdote is supported by research. Studies have shown that eye contact induces abnormally high subcortical activation in autistic individuals, which is hypothesized to result in the stress response reported by these individuals in association with eye contact (Hadjikhani et al., 2017).

Typically, when therapists write goals for eye contact, the rationale is for children to better attend and to improve social communication skills. However, by requesting eye contact from autistic children, we are often making it more difficult for them to focus on the task at hand. In fact, this experience is not unique to autism. Studies with non-autistic individuals have shown that it’s common to avert gaze when thinking and retrieving information (Doherty-Sneddon et al., 2001). For autistic individuals who have differences in auditory processing and language formulation, it stands to reason that minimizing eye contact can support communication and overall comfort in conversation.

As therapists, our role is to support the development of skills in a way that is respectful of individual differences. By better understanding the reasoning behind behaviors such as averting eye gaze, we can better support autistic individuals in achieving their goals in an affirming way.

Check out Anouk’s account to see their sketches and stories about autism:

To learn more about eye contact and cognition, check out: Doherty-Sneddon, G., Bonner, L., & Bruce, V. (2001). Cognitive demands of face monitoring: Evidence for visuospatial overload. Memory and Cognition, 29, 909–919.

To learn more about eye contact and stress in autistic individuals, check out: Hadjikhani, N., Åsberg Johnels, J., Zürcher, N. R., Lassalle, A., Guillon, Q., Hippolyte, L., Billstedt, E., Ward, N., Lemonnier, E., & Gillberg, C. (2017). Look me in the eyes: Constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism. Scientific Reports, 7(1).

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