Autism and Eye Contact: Should You Be Teaching Eye Contact to Children with Autism?

Many children with autism spectrum disorder struggle with and have poor eye contact. Both parents and professionals often wonder if we should focus on teaching eye contact, and, if so, how to teach this important nonverbal skill. Today I’m going to get on my soapbox about autism and eye contact.

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Your child’s not making eye contact, should you do anything?

When Lucas first started ABA in 1999, I was surprised to see that some programs included Look At Me. Our consultant didn’t recommend this program back then. I’m not sure if she didn’t like the program or if she didn’t think Lucas’ eye contact was bad enough to work on. Even today, there are Behavior Analysts who are using some variation of Look At Me. I think it’s actually a bad idea to focus so heavily on teaching this, especially to children with autism who have delayed language skills.

Eye contact as well as pointing and gesturing are considered nonverbal language skills that develop naturally in typically-developing kids. But, for 2-year-olds who can’t speak at all, or even a 6 or 16-year-old who is not conversational, teaching eye contact should be the least of our worries. Unlike pointing or other hand gestures that you can model and prompt, eye contact can’t be prompted. Even if you take a child’s chin and move it, the child’s eyes don’t have to follow the chin. I would never recommend this but have seen people do it.

In essence, there is no way to physically prompt eye contact.

Even for conversational kids and adults who have social interactions, it’s probably not a good idea to ever teach eye contact. There are many books and articles written by adults with autism who write about the stress that they felt when well-meaning parents and teachers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations. Some adults who speak and write fluently suggest that pushing eye contact makes them more distracted and unable to focus on what they’re saying or use problem solving skills.

Even though I don’t recommend focusing on, pushing, or forcing eye contact, there are a few strategies that will increase social communication skills with eye contact improvements that you can try.

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5 Steps for Autism and Eye Contact Skills

Step number 1: The more fun and entertaining you are, the better the eye contact will be. Pairing yourself with reinforcement is the subject of a previous blog, so you can check that out and learn how to pair yourself in all kinds of situations. Pairing will help eye contact.

Step number 2: If you’re the giver of good things that the child wants, eye contact, as well as smiles, will probably be better too. One trick is to hold it up to your mouth then say the word two or three times. If the child seems to want a banana, you hold up a banana and you say, Banana. Banana. Banana. If I had the choice between a child looking at my mouth or looking at my eyes, I choose my mouth every time. I want them to start looking at my whole face, especially my mouth, as I’m saying the word slowly three times.

Step number 3:  Get down to your child’s level when talking as much as possible. You can’t expect the child to look at your face or understand language if you’re too far away.

Step number 4:  I would pair up a table and use Early Learner programs like my Shoebox program, which almost always results in better verbal and nonverbal communication skills. I did another video blog on table time, so you may want to check that out too.

Step number 5: When you’re outside or even in your house or school building, engage a child in active and fun games and activities. By pushing them on a swing, bouncing the child on a ball or the trampoline, or even playing memory games. You want to be in front of the child at their level as much as possible. This helps to pair up these fun activities. Fun activities with you in front of them will result in better eye contact.

Autism and Eye Contact

In summary, I would never try to force eye contact or focus on it with structured programming. But there are some autism and eye contact strategies that would encourage eye contact. Be more fun. Be a giver, not a taker. Pair up table time. And get in front of and down at the child’s level when talking or playing.

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