Autism myth-busting: Explaining eye contact for autistic children and adults
It seems pertinent to write an entire blog post on the subject of eye contact and autistic people; it is often one of the first things that is referenced, with regard to whether someone is autistic, even by supposed experts and autism clinicians. You will sometimes hear some (ill-informed) people say: “So and so doesn’t look very autistic, because they make eye contact…”
Eye contact is used the world over as a way to initiate, terminate or regulate social interaction. It is absolutely true to say that autistic people struggle at varying degrees to make eye contact. (Very often, they will also have problems being videoed or photographed).
1.Autistic people CAN make eye contact. If they DO, don’t assume they’re NOT autistic!
2.However, on occasions, the autistic person may just be TOLERATING the eye contact.
Observe the autistic person, and there is every chance that if they are making eye contact, then it is just when they are comfortable with it at the minimum level required. What is uncomfortable for someone who’s autistic is enforced eye contact, and if that situation happens to be at a stressful time, for example a job interview or one-to-one with a teacher, when the autistic child or adult might feel judged, then their stress responses will be coming into play already. As stress levels increase (or other negative emotions connected with the person they’re supposed to be looking at!), the ability of the autistic person to comfortably hold eye contact reduces.
At stressful times, making eye contact will be harder for the autistic child or adult. We can simplify the issue by saying that in non-stressful situations, many autistic people are able to hold eye contact, but it doesn’t mean that they are very accomplished at it, or very comfortable with it; just that they have learned that it’s expected, and that they can certainly do it when there is a real need to! However, it may be a kind of mask, e.g the autistic person is acting in a neurotypical way, because they know it is expected.
However, if shutdown is imminent, e.g. if an autistic person is feeling stressed or threatened, or if there is any underlying issue with the person that they’re supposed to be making eye contact with, e.g. a conflict or argument or an area of mistrust, then without question, the autistic person will find it difficult to look them in the eye. Also, you can sometimes look more closely at the autistic person’s eye contact, and a lot of the time, you may find that they are not making direct contact with the eyes, but perhaps just below the eyes, for example ‘nose’ contact, or above the eyes, e.g. ‘eyebrow’ contact! (Which is a great compromise for all concerned, in our book)! Essentially, extended eye contact is part of a set of learned skill-sets that the autistic person feels they need (or is told they need) in order to appear neurotypical or ‘normal’!
So, please don’t focus on eye contact being a definitive assessment of whether a person is autistic or not – autists can and do make eye contact, but it is invariably hard for them, and their ability to do so could be an indicator of their discomfort or stress levels. (Here at Spectra.Blog we are certainly against any ‘compliance’-based training or so-called therapy that enforces eye contact for an autist.)
The science bit
Interestingly, a recent feature on ScientistAlert sourcing a study from the journal ‘Nature Scientific Reports’ states that: “Researchers have discovered a part of the brain responsible for helping newborns turn towards familiar faces is abnormally activated among those on the autism spectrum, suggesting therapies that force eye contact could inadvertently be inducing anxiety.”
Study researchers concluded that avoiding eye contact as an autistic person: “Is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal, stemming from over-activation in a particular part of the brain.” [The subcortical system].
It is also of value to think about WHY the eye contact is taking place, e.g. why an autistic person would tolerate something that’s uncomfortable for them – neurotypical people use eye contact to share ‘socio-emotional’ messages. However, even when the autistic person IS making eye contact, it is probably more for function, and to gain information (or meet an expectation), rather than to share an emotional ‘moment’.
In an autism assessment, the assessor will take eye contact into account, but (if they’re experienced as a clinician), will take it into account as a broader part of the overall picture, and will also note how the person being assessed uses their non verbal gestures as well.
NB THE MODERN POLYVAGAL THEORY GOES SOME WAY TO SHED LIGHT ON EYE CONTACT AND FEELING ‘SAFE AND SOCIAL.’
Please note that as we always say in each blog post, here at Spectra.blog, we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
Also published on Medium.