‘Do you want eye contact or a conversation?’
This was the question asked by someone with Asperger syndrome when he was approached with “Hi, I’m so-and-so, I’d like to know your opinion on…”
Perhaps, this ‘introductory question’ might sound strange to someone who doesn’t know much about autism, but if you are familiar with ASD, you’ll find it very logical and appropriate in this situation.
Avoidance of eye contact is a common characteristic in autism and it is often seen as one of the early indicators of ASD.
[But here I have to note that there is eye contact and ‘eye contact’: sometimes a child will even turn your head to look straight into your eyes. It has nothing to do with eye contact we establish while talking to people. It is fascination with colour/movement of the eyes.]
Research has shown that infants with ASD exhibited subtle impairments in attention to faces during interactions involving eye contact and child-directed speech with and without physical contact, (but not in contexts involving singing, familiar anticipatory games, or toy play) (Macari et al. 2020).
Many eye-tracking studies have shown that autistic individuals will look less towards people and more towards objects; and when constrained to look in the eyes, they show abnormally high activation in the subcortical system, which may be at the basis of their eye avoidance in daily life (Hadjikhani et al. 2017). Sustained autonomic arousal during eye contact could cause the impairments in eye contact: the smaller the habituation was, specifically in responses to a direct gaze, the more the child showed social impairments (Kaartinen et al. 2016).
Thus, the research has confirmed what autistic adults have been talking for decades, revealing their physiological and emotional reactions, feelings of being ‘searched with the eyes’, experiences of sensory overload and losing the ability to comprehend what’s being said, when making eye contact.
Direct perception in autism is often hyper. It can cause sensory overload resulting in switching to ‘mono’ (using one sense at a time).
Some autistic people seem to be hypersensitive when they are approached directly by other people. Some, if they are looked at directly, feel it as ‘a touch’, a sort of ‘distance touching’ with actual tactile experience.
Autistic children often seem to look past things and are completely ‘absent’ from the scene. This can be their attempt to avoid experiencing visual or auditory stimuli directly. This strategy gives them the ability to take in sensory information with meaning. Avoiding direct perception is another involuntary adaptation they use that helps them to survive in a sensory-distorted world by avoiding (or, at least, decreasing) information overload.
Autistic individuals can often understand things better if they attend to them indirectly; for example, by looking or listening peripherally (such as out of the corner of the eye or by looking at or listening to something else). In this case it is a kind of indirectly confrontational approach in contrast to a ‘normal’ directly confrontational one (Williams 1998). The same is true for other senses if they are hyperactive: the indirect perception of smell or touch are often defensive mechanisms to avoid overload.
Eye contact as a therapeutic tool???
Recently I’ve come across the research paper that suggests that “people with autism are not interested in processing social signals such as gaze but could do so efficiently if properly motivated [and] that eye contact could be used… to enhance sensitivity to bodily states, thus improving emotional decision making (in autism).” The researchers “propose two concrete ways to employ eye contact effects as a therapeutic tool. The first is to develop cognitive-behavioral tools to learn and/or motivate the recipient to create frequent and prolonged eye contact periods. The second is to raise awareness among caregivers of the beneficial effects of eye contact and to teach them the way to use eye contact to reach its optimum effects.”
However, I’d suggest to listen to Naoki Higashida (a young man with autism) –
“What’s bothered me for a long time is this idea people have, that so long as we’re keeping eye contact while they’re talking to us, that alone means we’re taking in every word. Ha! If only that was all it took, my disability would have been cured a long, long time ago...”
PS: Avoidance of direct perception is true not only for vision but also for other sensory channels. Do not approach the child directly in his hypersensitive modalities. When the hypersensitivity of the affected sensory channel is addressed and lessened, the relatively direct perception becomes easier.