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Lack of eye contact in children with autism

Lack of eye contact in children with autism

Children with autism may lack eye contact, and this deficiency typically begins right from infancy. This indicates that they are less relational and responsive to other people.

Numerous studies have been done on why children with autism may lack eye contact. 

Could it be because they aren’t just interested in interacting with people, or is there a scientific explanation to account for it? We will explore what is the case in this article. 

Is lack of eye contact a definite autism symptom in diagnosis?

As much as lack of eye contact is one of the criteria that doctors use in the diagnosis of autism, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a definite symptom. It is just one of the many behaviors or signs that suggest autism.

Autism is quite a complex health condition, and the way it affects people varies. The popular quote goes, “once you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” The way autism affects one child isn’t the same way it’d affect another. So, there could be different symptoms other than lack of eye contact.

Also, in the diagnosis of autism, there are no imaging or blood tests conducted. Doctors heavily rely on a specific spectrum of behaviors which should be in line with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

Based on such evidentiary findings, the diagnosis given by your child’s doctor can either be a confirmation or exclusion of autism as the cause of a health defect. The diagnosis could also turn out to be inconclusive.

What causes the lack of eye contact?

As mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of research done on this. Initially, it was generally accepted that the problem in maintaining eye contact was because of indifference or disinterest. This later was proven not to be the case.

Further studies revealed that it wasn’t a result of apathy or lack of care. This was clearly seen in the statements made by individuals with autism who found it difficult to make eye contact. They also pointed out that they find it stressful and discomforting.

Research also shows that they find it quite abnormal to express their feelings in an anxious state. More so, there are other reasons why a child or individual may not make eye contact, and all of them aren’t connected to autism.

For instance, not making eye contact could be a result of:

  • Not liking someone or being afraid of the person that is trying to converse or make eye contact
  • Having hearing problems
  • Being shy or timid
  • Coming from a culture that considers direct eye contact disrespectful

Children with autism also avoid eye contact for many reasons. 

As much as studies aren’t conclusive in this regard, some findings indicate that they:

  • Consider eye contact to be quite an intense and anxiety-inducing experience
  • Find it quite difficult to concentrate on spoken language and someone’s eyes simultaneously or consistently
  • May not know the importance of watching someone’s eyes during interaction
  • Lack of social drive or motivation 
  • May not be able to understand social cues from people’s eyes which gives more info in communication

6 ways to develop eye contact in children with autism

Developing eye contact practice in children with autism is a difficult task that requires tact and patience. However, it is possible. Here are ways you can do that.

Reinforce naturally occurring eye contact incidents

This method requires being overly sensitive and watchful. You must be able to recognize when your child makes eye contact naturally and reinforce such circumstances. Such reinforcements will help them make eye contact more frequently.

You could also use verbal reinforcements. For instance, you could say, “Thanks for looking at my face.” You must notice when they occasionally make eye contact with you and seek to reinforce it by making it more regular.

Discuss subjects or issues they find interesting

This is another effective way to reinforce eye contact in children with autism. Discuss the subjects that your child finds interesting. Taking note of topics that are interesting to your child can help in developing their eye contact skills. 

While they are discussing this with someone, you can participate in the conversation. This places you and your child on common ground, and it also helps to reinforce eye contact with you.

Practice eye contact during conversations in your child’s presence

During interactions, be sure to model making eye contact, especially in your child’s presence. If children with autism see you practicing this non-verbal communication behavior, they are more likely to do the same.

Ensure your child finds eye contact a comfortable thing

Another way to begin developing eye contact in your child or children with autism should be getting them to be comfortable with looking at familiar faces.

If they are comfortable with making eye contact with parents, siblings, and family friends, you can now move to other people in their lives, such as a teacher, or a stranger - like the cashier at a store or your local librarian.

You should know when and with whom your child needs to extend their eye contact practice.

Use requests as bait to reinforce eye contact

This strategy is also effective. For instance, if your child asks for sweets, before giving it to them, pause for a while to see if they look at you. This rewards system can also contribute to developing their eye contact practice.

Use gestures to promote eye contact practice

You can also use gestures to help your child make more eye contact with people. A gesture of pointing from your child’s sight angle to your eyes more often will help your child develop a more regular eye contact practice.

ABA therapy for eye contact

As mentioned earlier, forcing a child with autism to make eye contact with someone else can result in feelings of anxiety or cause negative behaviors from frustration. 

ABA therapy can help your child to work through these challenges by gradually building up a tolerance to eye contact, as it can be part of the treatment goals and plan.

As much as it won’t make them begin making eye contact like others, they will become better at it. You can enroll your child in speech and language therapy and applied behavior analysis (ABA).

This will help them improve their verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Research indicates that there is a neurological defect responsible for why children and individuals with autism find it difficult to make eye contact.

Thus, it isn’t ideal for compelling them to look into your eyes or someone else’s eyes. ABA is quite a convenient intervention, and it uses positive reinforcements to encourage specific behaviors. This behavioral approach is much better as it is less “forceful.”

A therapist can be quite a helpful alternative for children with autism. Rewarding eye contact practices will ensure your child develops a more frequent eye contact behavior. Behavior therapy can also help in educating families on the most effective and less stressful way to communicate with their child with autism.

This will ensure social and communication growth in your child.   

Eye contact problems in children with autism can progress with age

Young children and toddlers with autism may find it more difficult to make eye contact. They also struggle with social interaction and non-verbal communication. Thus, you should start as early as possible to devise strategies to reinforce eye contact practices in them.

As much as they won’t be able to practice eye contact the way typical people can, they’ll be able to improve over time.

Other diagnostic factors of autism

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), autism is a persistent lack of social communication and interactions across multiple contexts, and specific behaviors characterize it.

These behavior characteristics include:

  • Absence of non-verbal communication (even facial expressions)
  • Inability to understand, develop, and maintain relationships.
  • Coming across as uninterested and apathetic
  • Inability to respond during interaction socially and emotionally

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