Why do children with autism avoid eye contact?
As a therapist, a question I’ve always wondered about is why children with autism find it hard to maintain eye contact. A 2017 research by the Massachusetts University sheds some light on this matter (read article here: https://neurosciencenews.com/eye-contact-autism-6995/).
According to the research, the brains of individuals with autism responds more strongly than neurotypicals when they make eye contact. In fact, reports from autistic individuals reveal that it is uncomfortable for them to look others in the eye. Based on the data, it was then speculated that the behaviour of avoiding eye contact with other people may be an autistic individual’s way to “decrease unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain”.
In many cases, children with autism are known to have sensory issues. This could possibly be one of them. As a result of the greater stimulation they receive from eye contact, they end up shying away from it, creating the commonly observed phenomenon of autistic individuals avoiding eye contact.
To help an individual with such sensitive physiology, we try to do what in psychotherapy is called, “desensitisation”. Such a process involves exposing the individual to their sensitivities or phobias (this is a technique often used to treat phobias in psychotherapy) in small doses, gradually building it up to bigger and bigger doses. Essentially, we are attempting to help the individual stretch the limit of what is tolerable for them.
In the original article, it is mentioned that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioural therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them. I agree. Like any other thing that causes us uncomfortable feelings, for eg. having to give a public speech, we get anxious when we are faced with it. This is why we encourage a step-by-step approach that involves slowly building up the tolerance level of an autistic individual.
In a way, this is like training for anything else. When an individual start training to run for a marathon or do weight lifting, they start from what their baseline capacity is and build on it, bit by bit. They do not start by plunging straight into the deep end such as attempting to run 30km immediately or lifting a 100kg barbell. If anyone does that, it is very likely they would get hurt in the process. With that in mind, both therapists and parents need to remind themselves that this is a slow and drawn-out process that cannot and should not be hurried.
On the other hand, there may be a handful of worried parents out there who fret over if this is necessary. After all, if they were born more sensitive, why should we try to change them?
I must disagree. In my opinion, it is very difficult for our world to change. While the people in it may become kinder and more accepting of children with autism, the environment itself is unlikely to become less noisy or in any way less stimulating for them. Allowing our children to constantly stay within their circle of comfort would only be in their short-term interests. Rather, we need to look further to help them become better at adapting to the world. Additionally and crucially, as suggested in the original research, the strategy of avoiding eye contact with another individual is unlikely to come without costs, “since the eyes carry important interpersonal and deictic information during social interaction and communication, and eye-avoidance may result in cascading effects leading to improper development of the social brain.”
As such, I would encourage a safe and courageous exploration of our children’s boundaries through a step-by-step desensitisation process. By helping the autistic individual get used to more intense sensations, they would be enabled to move around the world independently and confidently without fear. And of course, the time taken for each individual to train up their “eye contact” muscles may differ wildly between, but let us celebrate each step, tiny or gigantic, they take!
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-03378-5 (original research)