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Teach Referencing, Not Eye Contact

Today on the blog we have a guest post from Cindy Bevier, a Relationship Development Intervention specialist. Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) teaches parents how to guide their child to seek out and succeed in truly reciprocal relationships, while addressing key core issues such as motivation, communication, emotional regulation, and more. Cindy is the owner of Vistas Autism Consulting, and she provides RDI and consulting to families living with autism in south Florida. She will be talking about the all-important topic of eye contact, a common concern among parents of children on the autism spectrum. If you’d like to learn more, check out her website and subscribe to her newsletter here. Happy reading!

Teach Referencing, Not Eye Contact

It is well known that people with autism often have difficulties with eye contact. Often it’s considered to be one of the warning signs that alerts people to the fact that a person might have autism. There could be many physical causes for this difficulty. Some on the autism spectrum have trouble hearing what you are saying or comprehending your words if they have to look at your face while you speak. It’s as if some brains cannot efficiently process sensory input coming in on visual and auditory channels at the same time. Another possible factor affecting eye gaze is impaired reflexes, like the vestibulo-ocular reflex. This reflex is working when you turn your head as you look at a stationary object – your eyeballs will move in the opposite direction of the head movement. This reflex is constantly working, causing your eyes to make minute adjustments all the time, because no one stands perfectly still. Now, imagine how it would be if your eyes didn’t do this automatically. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to look at someone’s face when it seems to be constantly in motion? When you demand eye contact from a child on the spectrum, you may be asking for something that is very difficult to do because it is not occurring automatically, therefore requires cognitive effort and control, which requires ENERGY.

And then, there are cultural aspects of eye contact. In the US and Europe, direct eye contact is expected as a sign of attentiveness and respect. However, in many African, Latin American, and Native American cultures, direct eye contact can be considered aggressive or disrespectful. In Muslim countries in the Middle East, direct eye contact between men and women is minimal. I bring this up to make the point that differences in expectations about eye contact are hugely influenced by cultural norms.

I have seen teachers grab a child’s face and forcefully turn it towards them, demanding (usually LOUDLY) to “LOOK AT ME” (presumably they are taught this – otherwise it seems to be more like assault than a teaching technique). Or they are taught to tell a child to “look at me” and then give the child praise or a treat for compliance. My problem with teaching a child to always look in someone’s eyes is that is it taught as a rule, and it is a rule that is fraught with exceptions in the real world. A rule-based approach is much too simplistic, and entails the risk of making the person seem even odder by relentless application. Truly appropriate eye contact allows for cultural differences, for looking away if the conversation becomes embarrassing, for averting gaze to relieve anxiety or diffuse confrontation. And how many of us look up and to the side when we are trying to think?

Eye contact is a small part of a larger ability common to us humans called “social referencing”. Social referencing is using another person’s perspective or emotional reaction to evaluate an unfamiliar situation. Here’s a personal example: I was on a plane with severe turbulence a few years ago, and I was very frightened. I had a death grip on my chair and was on the verge of hyperventilating. But when I looked across the aisle at a man who just yawned and continued to read his paper, I thought “well, HE’S not scared, so we must not be about to crash!” I managed to calm myself down, without even catching his gaze, by borrowing his relaxed perspective. Can you imagine how it would feel if you did NOT have that ability? Babies will check their mothers’ reactions in an unfamiliar situation – if mom looks happy and encouraging, baby will explore; if mom looks fearful, baby will probably hesitate. Social referencing is truly a survival mechanism as well as an essential way we connect as humans. Social referencing can include eye contact, but it also includes joint attention (where two people look back and forth at each other and at an object), coordinating your actions with another person, boundaries and personal space and all manner of higher order communication abilities.

So can social referencing, and its subcomponent, eye contact, be taught to people with autism? Absolutely, and it doesn’t have to be taught with rules or external rewards, but can spring out of the natural motivation of the person. You want to see people reference others when they need information or are curious about another’s viewpoint, not because someone told them to always look when being spoken to, or when someone grabs their face. I addressed this with my son by many different tactics. I reduced my language, I would talk and then suddenly pause until he looked my way. I would be doing something and suddenly fall down. I would put my hand up for a high five, then shift it off to the side so we’d miss, then he’d look at me like ‘what’s this crazy lady doing’- anything that would give him a reason to want to look at me. My son IS able to reference other people now, because he wants to and not because he memorized rules.

There is no way to teach a person enough rules to cover appropriate eye contact in every situation. Instead, help them learn to reference other people, to build on what natural motivation they have, to check out what others are doing because there’s something interesting there. Learning to reference other humans for information truly is a foundation for connection, learning, and survival in a stressful world.

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