Eye Contact

It's really quite amazing how much we use our eyes to communicate.  We can know if someone is happy, sad, annoyed, tired, mad, etc. all by looking into someone's eyes.  We can point with our eyes, we can show interest in something (or someone), we can say "come here", we can say "help", we can say a lot with just a tiny movement of our eyes.  Our eyes are not only used to be able to see the amazing things in our world, but also to express how we are feeling about our world.

There are many individuals with autism who lack eye contact.  It can be difficult for those trying to communicate with these individuals, and they may feel that they are being ignored or that the individual is not paying attention or is distracted.  That's usually what we would think if someone is not looking at us when we are speaking to them.  There may be various reasons why someone with autism may not give eye contact, but it's not always because they're ignoring you.

So, the question is...should we force eye contact?  Should we focus on making a child give us eye contact when we're talking to them?  There may be some that disagree with me, and that's fine, but my answer would be no.  The eye contact is not the underlying issue, communication generally is.

I'm not talking about speech here, I'm not talking about being able to form words with our mouths, I'm talking about back and forth interactions, gestural communication.  

As we focus on those back and forth interactions, you will usually find that eye contact improves.  I'm not saying it's going to be perfect, but it will generally increase.  As a child starts to find you more interesting, realizes that their actions and words have power, and that they want to see your reactions, you'll see that they will look to you more often.

Need some ideas on where to start?  There are a lot of place you can start, but here's just one idea.  Try interacting using sensory motor activities.  Activities/toys that involve a lot of visual stimulation can be very difficult to compete against, you want to make the environment a place where YOU are more exciting than the flashy toys around you.

Here are 10 sensory-motor activities you can try starting with
  • wrestling
  • jumping together (on the trampoline, couch, bed, where ever)
  • burrito wrap - get a large blanket, roll the child up, then start adding "topping" and give him/her a lot of deep pressure, then "eat" him/her up.
  • bury him/her with pillows
  • throw him/her onto the couch and wait for him/her to ask for more
  • chase
  • build a tower of pillows and run together and knock it down
  • play stop and go while you spin him/her on an office chair
  • swing him/her in a blanket
  • crawl through a tunnel (this blocks out other distractions and they can look at you at the end of the tunnel as they crawl towards you)
Find an activity that your child will want more of. Play, play, play, and then pull back a little to see if your child will initiate more.  Don't force him/her to say more, watch their gestures and take them as cues.  Don't discount gestural communication, it's the beginning of communication skills and it's part of the foundation that they need to strengthen.

Joy Mano
Utah P.L.A.Y. Project Home Consultant
Early Childhood Autism Intervention

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