4 Steps to Teaching Eye Contact to an Autistic Toddler

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Is Eye Contact Necessary?

I think one of the most controversial topics when it comes to autism is eye contact – is it necessary or not?

On the one hand are the people that say it is completely unnecessary and, in fact, harmful to the child, to force them to make eye contact. Temple Grandin says in one of her many wonderful books that her brain looks the same when she is looking away from something as someone else’s does when they are looking straight at it. So in order to really concentrate on what a person is saying, she actually needs to look away, because otherwise so much of her brain is taken up with the eye contact that she has no space left for the conversation. Some autism advocates say that society is wrong to request eye contact from people for whom it is so uncomfortable.

I can see their point. I myself prefer to listen to people talking by looking down. I feel so uncomfortable in a lecture if the lecturer locks eyes with me and stares me down for ten minutes – I am pretty sure that what they say in that time doesn’t even register.

On the other hand are the people that say it is a necessary evil. It is socially unacceptable to talk to someone else without making ever making eye contact. It is hard for a teacher to tell if you are listening to her in class if you don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is used to establish interest and presence in a situation. You do not need to do it the entire time, but at least acknowledging someone’s presence is important for normal social interaction. And you need to re establish it from time to time, so that you can read social cues.

I cannot resolve this debate right here right now. From my research it seems both sides are right. Some kids don’t need eye contact to concentrate and learn, and in fact if they have to make eye contact they may learn worse – they may find it very hard to understand what you are saying to them.

The mistake that autism advocates, especially the ones that are autistic themselves, often make is assuming that their experience is the only one. That because they find it easy to concentrate without eye contact, and hard to actually make eye contact, that anyone that teaches their kids to make eye contact is tormenting them and harming them.

I can only share our personal experience. And in my experience with Michael I have come down firmly in the second camp. Eye contact should be taught and will become easier with practice.

Mostly this is because eye contact does not seem hard for Michael at all.

He was always very good at eye contact when he was a baby. He used to pick an attractive young woman and stare at her really hard in the elevator, or at the traffic lights, and she used to fall in love with him in three seconds flat. I remember thinking that despite all his delays I knew he didn’t have autism. Also I used to think ‘this boy is going to be trouble when he grows up!’ I’m pretty sure Life was pointing at me and laughing when I thought that. Or would if Life could point. But I digress.

He lost his eye contact around fifteen months old and at the start of his therapy it had become hard for him, like for many children with autism. Most of his programs for the first three to six months did not require any kind of eye contact. But eventually it has become a basic requirement for all his programs, and in fact he concentrates, and performs, much better with eye contact than he does without.

Step 1: Eye Contact to Request

We started his ‘eye contact’ programs with a simple ‘eye contact to request’ – so if he wanted his favourite treat, he needed to look at me briefly. To encourage him, at the start, I would bring the treat/toy/iPhone with cartoon up right behind my ear and he would follow it with his eyes. Eventually I didn’t have to do this anymore and he looked at me reflexively.

Step 2: Eye Contact to Name

The next, very similar one, was eye contact to name. This involved prompting him to look at me when I said his name – again, by moving the toy/treat behind my ear. Initially I would be right next to him and eventually I would go outside the room, call his name, and expect him to come out and look at me.

Step 3: Eye Contact with Songs and Social Games

We followed up with other, more social ones. Ready, set, go for example where he had to make eye contact on set, just before I blew the bubbles or threw him in the air on ‘go’. We introduced others once he got good at these – eye contact to name and eye contact during singing (I would sing Row Row Row Your Boat, and stop just before ‘don’t forget to scream’ so he had to look at me, and then I would tickle him or throw him up in the air).

As we went along these programs became incredibly easy for him – now we use them for light relief, and I’m pretty sure that looking into my eyes has become something Michael actually really enjoys, almost a visual stim. If I’m singing a song he likes, he will often drop everything and come right up to me, staring into my eyes. Not that I’m complaining. His eyes are blue, and almond shaped, and his eyelashes are so long it’s totally unfair and I want him to look at me forever.

Step 4: Eye Contact to Establish Attention

Then without even noticing, I started expecting him to make eye contact before giving him any instructions. I didn’t do this on purpose – I just waited for him to show me in some way that he was ready to learn, and that was the natural thing for him to do.

There were a couple of programs he was stuck on at one time. I remember the hardest was where I had to point to one of three boxes, and he had to drop a block into the one I pointed to. He couldn’t do this at all. He just couldn’t concentrate on what I was pointing to. Then I decided to wait. I didn’t say ‘look’ or point until he stopped staring blankly into air, and made eye contact. Then I would do it straight away.

He went from 0 to 100% in that one session. And it has repeated in every program – if I give him an instruction without eye contact, he is likely to be distracted and not to be able to do it. If I wait until he’s looking at me, he will get it right, and then get a huge proud grin. Then I hug him so much his bones creak. Because he’s the sweetest.

It is Important to Try to Teach Eye Contact

I have thought that maybe because we are teaching him so young, this skill that would have otherwise become hard for him, is actually very easy through becoming second nature. In the same way that when you start driving, you at first find even right hand turns to be hard and need to concentrate on every movement of both hands, and your feet, and looking in the mirror. But as you get good at it you get from A to B without noticing.

If I had concluded after a few months that eye contact made it harder for him to concentrate or learn, it is possible I may have shelved it for a while. Or even put it aside and taught him replacement behaviours to show his teachers or peers that he is paying attention when they speak.

In these situations it may be good to learn something other than eye contact to let others know you are paying attention to what they are saying. Maybe saying ‘oh, really’, ‘hmm’, ‘ok’. Some sort of reaction is important. One special ed teacher told me she asks kids in her class to look just to the left or right of her eyes.

The important thing is that if I hadn’t even tried it, he would find many tasks much harder without eye contact, and I would not have even known that he would enjoy it eventually. Children with autism (actually, all children) need a push sometimes to learn new things in uncomfortable situations, but the most important lesson I’ve learned with Michael is that situations will not stay uncomfortable forever and sometimes the things that he disliked the most at the start can become his favourite thing to do.

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