Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Eyes Have It: Eye Contact and Autism

One of the most obvious aspects of autism is the difficulty with making eye contact. Apparently, eye contact is becoming a problem not just for people with autism but also for young people who spend much of their time looking at cell phones and tablets. Yesterday I ran across an interesting online article from The Wall Street Journal entitled “Just Look Me in the Eye Already” that discusses this issue. Written by Sue Shellenbager and published May 28, 2013, this article points out that lack of eye contact can be a hindrance in work settings. [To read this article, please click here.]

According to research cited in this article, adults typically make eye contact 30-60% of the time in average conversation. However, eye contact should be made 60-70% of the time to establish emotional connections, studies show. As young adults have become accustomed to multitasking and using their mobile devices frequently, eye contact has declined. Psychologists attribute this need to constantly check social media on FOMO, or the fear of missing out on social opportunities. Ironically, while they are checking social media, they are missing out on the chance to interact with others socially in person.

Researchers also indicate that the decline in eye contact has occurred with the increase of telecommuting, where people become accustomed to communicating with others via telephone or computers and not having to make eye contact. However, eye contact can significantly influence others, which makes this skill important in work and social settings. Studies show that good eye contact conveys confidence, determination, and most of all, respect. Those who avoid eye contact are often perceived as “untrustworthy, unknowledgeable, and nervous.”

Studies have shown that eye contact must be held for certain amounts of time to be effective. In one-on-one settings, 7-10 seconds gazes are optimum, while 3-5 seconds of eye contact is best for group settings. In the work setting, too much eye contact (more than 10 seconds) causes the person to be viewed as aggressive or insincere. In social situations, too much eye contact may be a “sign of romantic interest or just plain creepy.”

For many who have autism, eye contact is a skill that must be taught because it does not appear to develop naturally. Some therapists aggressively attack this skill by grabbing children’s faces and insisting that they look at them. Others will repeatedly admonish children with autism: “Look at me!” or “Look me in the eyes!” However, children with autism may avoid eye contact not just because of impaired social skills but also because of sensory issues where they have trouble listening and looking at the same time.

Another possible reason why people with autism have impaired eye contact may be a motor skill issue. In the article “Why Kids with Autism May Avoid Eye Contact,” written by Karen Rowan and published online in Livescience on June 5, 2013, the problem with eye contact is linked to issues with brain processing. [To read this article, please click here.]

This article cites research done at Albert Einstein Medical College in New York in which children were shown a checkerboard pattern on a screen while electrodes measured their brain activity. Typical children showed response in their brains indicating that they were processing this information in the center of the visual field, while children with autism were processing this information in the peripheral field of vision. This makes total sense to me because we often see Alex looking off to the side instead of straight on at something. We have always suspected that his peripheral vision is stronger than his straight-on vision.

This study goes on to suggest that because motor skills are often impaired in children with autism, they may have a reduced ability early in life to control their eye muscle movements. Consequently, they get in the habit of using their peripheral vision instead of looking straight ahead. As a result, they do not develop good eye contact with other people, which is perceived as a poor social skill, but in all likelihood, is more of a motor issue.

Of course, eye contact is an important social skill, and we have worked with Alex so that others do not perceive him as rude or aloof or disengaged. In addition, we have to remind him not to look at people too long who catch his attention, especially little kids whom he innocently finds amusing, because we don’t want anyone to think he is “just plain creepy.” Along with his therapists, Ed and I gently remind him to look in the direction of people’s faces instead of keeping his head down, and we also gently remind him not to stare at people. Moreover, all of us praise him when he displays appropriate eye contact.

Certainly, we want Alex to develop all of his skills so that he can interact with others appropriately, but apparently he is not too unlike typical people his age in his lack of eye contact. Although we are thankful for the progress he is making in this regard, perhaps we just need to give him a cell phone to carry around everywhere, and no one will be the wiser that his issue is motor-related due to autism and not FOMO, due to being a multitasking young adult.

“Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions.” Psalm 119:18

No comments: