Eye-Contact May Not Be All It’s Cracked Up To Be
One of the things we work on with our children is eye contact. Lack of eye contact when speaking to someone is one of the most marked signs of an autism spectrum disorder. In our house, it’s not something we have to work on nearly as much as other families, MJ has pretty decent eye contact most times. We do find ourselves reminding her that we have to look at someone from time to time when saying hello, goodbye or thank you, or that we have to mention their name if we are not looking directly at a person, otherwise they don’t know we are speaking to them.
Something dawned on me the other day that made me realize that perhaps the importance of eye contact is not always what it’s cracked up to be. I tend to have the deepest conversations with MJ in one of three places: The car, at home in her bed in the dark, or in the bath. It’s these conversations where she will bare her little soul and tell me what is really bothering her, or give me some insight into a recent meltdown.
I cherish these conversations. However, I realized all of these conversations take place with next to no eye contact occurring.
In the car, I’m driving so am looking at the road and she only sees the back of my head but is usually busy looking out the window while she shares what is going on in her brain. At night, these are conversations that take place after the light has been turned out or if she’s woken up in the middle of the night. We can’t see each other in the dark. The bath was the trickier one for me to figure out, as it’s bright and we’re able to look at each other. After our most recent bath where she shared something she was struggling with, I realized she is usually on her belly in the tub looking at the wall and although I’m trying to look at her, I’m kind of looking over her since she’s much lower in the tub and I’m often sitting on a little stool.
Whenever we’ve tried to have a conversation with her and looked directly at her/make her look at us, she squirms, fidgets, chews and is extremely anxious, we never really get any kind of answers out of her, and never the kind of deep thoughtful answers she gives me during any of the other locations noted above.
It made me realize that they eye contact part may be harder for her than we realize, and that it’s not always needed to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Having a ‘safe space’ where she can share her feelings without having to focus on looking at us, is actually calming for her. Remembering to look at someone when you talk to them takes a lot of energy when it doesn’t come naturally to you. For her, I’m guessing it brings out her ‘yellow’ behaviours and starts to shut her brain down making it even more difficult to tell us what is going on inside her head.
I’ve decided I’m not going to focus on getting her to look at us when she talks about her innermost fears or feelings, instead I’m going to create more opportunities where she can share things with me, without having to focus on looking at me. To me, it’s more important we find out things are bothering her or what made her anxious so we can problem solve together.
Of course, she still needs to remember to use eye contact for every day conversation and we will continue to remind her as need for that; but If we spend our energy focused on making her look at us all the time, we won’t make nearly as much progress at getting inside her head. Only once she shares these thoughts with us, can we help her learn how to cope with the world around her.
Here’s to eye contact only when necessary,