Teaching Eye Contact as a Foundational Social Skill to Children With Autism or Down Syndrome

I never knew how important eye contact was until I had the mother of a 2-year-old instruct him to look me in the eye when I talked to him.

And he did.

Wow!

I instantly felt a connection to this child.  I had his attention and his recognition of my importance, not because I was an adult, but simply because I was the one he was looking at because I was the one talking to him.

It was an ah-ha moment, one that made me say, “I want to teach my kids to do that.”

But how?  The standard, “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” doesn’t work very well, because children wind up associating eye contact with negativity.  “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” is usually said in the context of scolding.

We recognize very early on that many children with autism or Down syndrome find eye contact very uncomfortable and avoid it.  I’ve watched several interviews with young adults with autism and they describe the feeling they have when attempting eye contact to be akin to an emotional violation, a feeling that someone who is making eye contact with them can see into their innermost being and can see all their thoughts and who they are.

Have you ever experienced that?  I have.  And I don’t have autism or Down syndrome.

So it’s safe to say that people with autism have a heightened sensitivity to a natural reaction associated with eye contact.

So why, when a person is diagnosed with autism, do we drop our attempts at making eye contact with them?

Don’t get me wrong.  Unless asked to the contrary, friends of a child with autism should look for ways to make the child feel comfortable and to accommodate their idiosyncracies.  But the professionals and parents of children with autism have a wonderful opportunity when that child is young to densensitize them to their difficulties.

When a neurotypical child dislikes vegetables, how do typical parents respond?  Do they say, “That’s okay.  I know you’d rather not have vegetables, you don’t have to have them.”

No.  They say, “Here.  Eat just one little bite of your carrots, and then you can have a strawberry (or cookie).  And then the next time, they try to get the child to eat two bits of carrots.”  They identify the child’s dislike, and then they reward the child when the child does the thing which they are initially avoiding.  In time, the child not only will tolerate carrots, but often times they will love carrots.  Why?  Because they have been desensitized.

People with autism or Down syndrome can find it pleasant to retreat into their own world and tune the world around them out.  This gives rise to autistic behaviors and tendencies that result in them feeling more distant from the world around them, and the people around them tend to distance themselves because of the person’s autistic behaviors.  It’s self-perpetuating.

Allowing children to avoid making eye contact is counter-productive; it perpetuates the very thing that is problematic in the first place.

Think about this the next time you find yourself tuning out in a conversation and thinking about other things:   Are you making eye contact with the speaker?  Probably not.

(Although I do admit, I have this one trick where I look into another person’s eyes to ensure they think I’m paying attention, but I go kind of hypnotic with a mental wall where I know I’m not processing anything they are saying to me.)

Making eye contact can be draining, especially for people with autism or Down syndrome.  But here’s the thing, it’s like any other exercise.  The more you do it, the easier it gets.

So, all this information is great, but how in the world do we teach our children to make eye contact, especially when it is unpleasant for them?

From the time your baby is born, when he happens to look in your eyes, be ready to smile big, coo, say things like, “Oh, you’re looking at me, good boy.”  This is not just for children with a diagnosis; do this with all your children.  When they make eye contact, make a big deal about it, like they’ve just done something wonderful (they have).  Most of the time, you can do this without words.  Noah can be very resistant to my verbal encouragement, sometimes it just plain makes him mad.  So often when I see him looking at my eyes, I just look back at his eyes and smile and tell him I love him.  Other times, when I see him making eye contact with me, I will wordlessly hand him an M&M.

As your children mature into toddlers, continue to reward their eye contact with big smiles and your full attention.  That will teach them that when they want something, they have to come to you and get your attention by looking into your eyes to start communication.  Even mere eye contact is a form of communication; it communicates, “I have something to say, I need something, I want something.”

If you can catch your child’s gaze, take the moment to lock eyes, smile warmly, and use expressive statements like, “I love you, you are wonderful, you are such a good boy.”  Your child will associate eye contact with pleasure.  (M&Ms work too :))

As your child starts verbalizing, start reminding him when necessary to “look at my eyes” when you are talking to him or he is talking to you.

For children with special needs, this may be a very slow process, but that’s okay.  It’s worth the effort.  For every second of eye contact they are making, that is one second of connection they are reclaiming.  Powerful stuff!

If your child has developed a real aversion to eye contact, you may have to buffer all your reactions.  Instead of dramatic gestures and lots of encouragement, it may be that a simple smile from you or “good” may suffice.  If you have identified other motivators for your child, this is a good place to use them.  It’s okay if they don’t even realize what you are encouraging.  They can be encouraged subconsciously that eye contact is a good thing, and they will eventually catch on.  The best thing you can do is start this process before they develop the aversion, but it is never too late to attempt this.

Your Turn:

How have you encouraged eye contact with your child?  What works, what doesn’t? 

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3 thoughts on “Teaching Eye Contact as a Foundational Social Skill to Children With Autism or Down Syndrome”

  1. I think you and Andrew have your children making eye contact very well. Maybe you’ve done it unconsciously. Even with Noah, he looks straight at me with his engaging smile…

    I’m so looking forward to June and Les Mis. Hope you know where the tickets are.

    OH…big OH. What day do you take Andres to the Austin neurologist?

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