Eye contact can be difficult or painful for autistic people. Some autistic people can handle limited eye contact, while others cannot handle it at all. It is usually most comfortable for autistic people to avoid eye contact, and it is important for neurotypicals to understand that a lack of eye contact does not mean inattention.
Reasons for Avoiding Eye Contact
Snagglebox lists several reasons why autistic people may avoid eye contact:
- Overwhelm (too much information to take in) or confusion
- Face-blindness; it is uncomfortable to make eye contact with someone whose face they don't recognize
- It's useless
- Fear; autistic people may find eye contact threatening.
Nameera Akhtar and Morton Ann Gernsbacher note that neurotypical infants will look away from their caregivers when overwhelmed, and this action seems to calm them.
Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues studied how averting eye contact (in neurotypicals) while thinking can improve concentration. They then tested three groups of children: neurotypicals, autistic children, and children with Williams syndrome (who often enjoy intense eye contact). All three groups practiced similar gaze aversion during a math test. However, the autistic children looked away more when listening, and looked away less when thinking.
Their findings suggest that perhaps listening places a greater cognitive strain on autistic people, so avoiding eye contact allows them to process spoken words better.
Forced Eye Contact
Some therapies, particularly those that focus on normalization and compliance such as ABA, may force or coerce eye contact. This can be counterproductive.
Forced eye contact has been found to hinder thinking in all people (including neurotypicals).
The Indiana Resource Center for Autism also cautions against pushing for eye contact, because it may interfere with the autistic person's ability to focus and feel at ease.
"When developing strategies aimed at focusing and maintaining attention on the part of folks who have autism spectrum disorders, we need to consider idiosyncratic ways that individuals take in and process information. We need to recognize how conventional social expectations may, in fact, interfere with learning for some."
Non-autistic caregivers, loved ones, and teachers should accustom themselves to the autistic person's unique body language. This includes recognizing that the autistic person can look at different places (e.g. their mouth or their torso), or stare off into space, while paying close attention to what is being said.
Adjusting to little eye contact may take time for neurotypicals. It may help to choose seating arrangements that are side-by-side rather than face-to-face, or to sit on either side of a corner (as pictured in the diagram).
Autistic people may decide to feign eye contact to avoid confusing neurotypicals. Instead, they might look at the speaker's...
If this is too uncomfortable for the autistic person, then they might choose to look in their general direction, such as looking at their necklace, tie, hands, or feet.