“It seems to me that my students with autism and Asperger’s are not paying attention,” commented a junior high school English teacher. “How can they learn anything if they are always gazing off into space?”
One of the common characteristics of individuals diagnosed with autism is failure to make eye contact. Some individuals will glance at the person speaking or at a visual cue, then look away. Others will look out of the side of their eyes. Yet other people with autism will shake papers or their hands in front of their faces, while others will stare very intently at a ceiling fan or a window or at a spot on their desk. At the same time, some individuals will stare intently the person who is speaking, a habit that can be unnerving to the speaker. Here are some ideas for dealing with this issue.
1. Examine your criteria. Teachers might want to use something other than eye gaze to determine if an individual with autism is paying attention. If the student is reaching his expected level of performance in that class, it is probably safe to say that the fact that he doesn’t look at the speaker or the lesson is not significantly interfering with his learning.
2. Avoid nagging. Teachers can get caught in a trap of giving constant reminders to students about looking at the speaker. Failure to maintain eye contact with a speaker is simply an inherent trait of autism. Constant verbal reminders will not change the “staring-into-space” behavior, and the continual nagging can certainly disrupt the lesson for other students. Some individuals with autism will respond negatively to this type of nagging, and may purposefully choose to stare into space.
3. Raise the bar. While we can learn to cut them some slack in classrooms and other learning situations, our friends with autism will encounter many situations at school and on their jobs where they are expected to look at the speaker. It is certainly possible for teachers, therapists, and parents to shape the behavior of most individual with autism. For example, because most of my friends with autism find it difficult to look at my eyes when I am speaking, I wear a small gold loop earring in my left ear. Most of my friends have learned look at that earring when we are conversing or when I ask the entire class to look my direction so we can begin the lesson for the day.
We welcome any thoughts and ideas about the topic of helping individuals with autism make and maintain contact with the speaker. Just send us a message talk@FAQautism.com
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com