Updated: May 14, 2019
In a previous article “Why Do Children With Autism Avoid Eye Contact?”, we looked at a research article that helped gave us some insight into various reasons why autistic children tend to avoid eye contact. We also spoke of a step-by-step desensitisation process that we use to help children flex and train this “eye-contact muscle”. In this follow-up, we want to give you a few practical tips you can apply in your interaction with your child to encourage eye-contact.
The desensitisation process, as previously mentioned, is a process that slowly acclimates an individual to something that is initially unbearable to them. As the initial baseline of tolerance levels varies from child to child, it is best to establish one by simply observing naturally occurring levels of eye-contact. For example, observing when and if they do voluntarily make eye-contact with you or when they are responsive to you. You should also take note of how often this happens, how long it is sustained for, and if it happens during particular periods of the day. From there, you will better understand when it is a better time to practice working on eye-contact, what you can expect, and a benchmark to note any improvements.
Before that, I must emphasise the importance and significance of it being a “step-by-step” process, and crucially, that the size of the step will likely be one that is tiny. When people think about a step-by-step process, they tend to start modestly, but begin wanting to jump hoops by the end of the day. The progress may be small or big, depending a lot on the natural inclination of the child such as their temperament and sensitivity. In other words, don’t punish the child for YOUR expectations.
If eye-contact is what you’re working on, use a strong reinforcer (items/toys your child like) for it and start with very low demand. Depending on if your child is able to meet your eye at all or not and how aversive they are to making eye-contact, a low demand could even be to look in your direction without making eye-contact initially.
Place the reinforcer at your face/eye so that the child will naturally be attracted to looking in that direction.
Once you have placed the reinforcer, try not to overload your child with instructions. Rather, you can simply wait without anymore input, allowing the child to look when he is ready. If they do not look after a long while, you may gently encourage them by guiding their face towards the reinforcer.
Try not to do this activity in a place that is very distracting or has many other attractive things (eg. in the living room where the TV is switched on) as the child may lose interest in your reinforcer and start focusing on something else. It may also add to the sensory overload of the child, making it less likely they will respond to your request.
Working on scanning and visual performance tasks can help to improve visual performance on the whole. Scanning tasks such as being able to match identical pictures or objects quickly and accurately or fixing puzzles will help to improve imitation skills, eye contact and so on, which require child to attend to visual stimuli. Just like how a badminton player would work on footwork, strength conditioning and technical strokes to achieve better overall performance.
Engaging the child in sensory activities, such as the use of a dark room and massages can help calm the child down and prevent sensory overload. This encourages greater receptivity to making eye-contact as they are not already overstimulated.
Other things to note:
Whenever the child makes eye-contact, always praise as you give them the reinforcing item.
If and when the child makes spontaneous and voluntary eye-contact, reinforce STRONGLY and shower them with praises!
Give the child time to rest as well. Understand that making eye-contact is a very difficult thing for your child, and they may need time to recover from the strain of having to do it. Going back to the gym analogy (I hope you’re not sick of it yet), you always need to take time to rest your muscles between training periods. Training excessively within a short period may lead to injuries and a developed aversion to the task. In other words, the adage “slow and steady wins the race” rings truest here!