Society generally expects eye contact. When we speak to someone, we want to connect, and we tend to use eye contact as a measure of that connection. Teachers, supervisors, parents, and even friends gauge the level of our attention by our eye contact. This social norm presents a problem in the lives of many individuals with autism.
An articulate high school student with autism told me that his teachers frequently say, “Michael, I expect you to pay attention.” And his boss counted points off his job evaluation for “lack of attention.” Michael’s sister is also a high school student. She is worried that Michael doesn’t have any friends. “He just walks down the hall without looking at anyone, so people think he isn’t friendly or that he doesn’t want to talk to them,” she said.
In reality, it does, indeed appear on the surface that Michael is inattentive. He gazes into space in class, and appears to be looking something just above my head when we are talking. He does not initiate eye contact with strangers or friends. In fact, he tends to avoid eye contact, even with well-loved family members.
Michael tells me he is not purposefully avoiding people, and that he actually likes talking with people. “I wouldn’t even know about the eye contact stuff if people didn’t tell me about it,” he commented. Michael realizes this is an important skill for school and work and friends, so he is learning to purposefully focus on the space between the eyes of people, whether listening to a speaker in a group setting or talking informally with his mom.
Some of our friends with autism will not be able to develop an alternative to eye contact like Michael’s looking at a focal point. Even if a person can learn to compensate for this deficit, it is good for people in his community to understand that lack of eye contact is very prevalent in autism and that lack of eye contact does not necessarily indicate inattention or poor attitude.
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NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: 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. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to talk@FAQautism.com And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com