Talking face-to-face, your child with autism doesn’t look at you. Her eyes have never intentionally met yours. It’s hurtful sometimes – it would feel so connective if she’d gaze at you when you said I love you – and at other times it comes across as rude. It’s not her fault and it’s not yours. Many people on the spectrum struggle with eye contact, finding it uncomfortable or, for some, extremely stressful. Given that eye contact doesn’t come naturally to kiddos with ASD, should you encourage Penny to peek into your peepers? We think so.
Why Eye Contact Is Important
Socially, eye contact has a lot of weight. It shows that we care to hear another’s thoughts, we’re engaged in the conversation and it allows us to pick up on subtle social cues. On the other hand, not looking at someone can convey disinterest, disrespect or dishonesty. So, Penny is more likely to interact successfully with others when she can make eye contact.
Encouraging Eye Contact
With time, practice and patience, you can help Penny learn how to look into your eyes. Here’s what to do.
Motivate: Penny will be more willing to peek into your peepers if she’s really motivated. So gather several of her favourite items, such as cookies, books and dolls, to use as you practice. Also use sensory social routines that Penny thinks are terrific, such as tickles and spins. For older kiddos, you can incorporate online interactive games that help teach eye contact, such as Ted’s Ice Cream Adventure.
NOTE: If looking seems super stressful, then start small with fleeting glances. Still too overwhelming for Penny? Begin with having her face the speaker. Then, if she has a good grasp of language, teach her to fake it by looking at the person’s nose or forehead instead of their eyes.
Position and prompt: With a preferred toy or treat in hand, position your face closely in front of Penny’s face to prompt her to glance at your eyes. As soon as she does – even if it’s for a nanosecond – hand her the cookie. Same thing goes for social routines: Give a tickle, stop and place your face directly in front of Penny’s. Wait until she looks, then tickle her again. Do this over and over until she understands your expectation, which is that she has to look before she gets what she wants, and meets your eyes right away. If she doesn’t, no cookie or no more tickles.
From there, systematically fade your position back until she independently makes eye contact when you’re lying down, sitting or standing. Once Penny consistently looks when she wants more, teach her to hold eye contact while she asks for something. Withhold the item until she verbalizes and looks at the same time. If you’re steadfast with this, Penny will be more likely to regularly make eye contact with you in the future when she wants something.
Reward: You reinforce Penny’s looking-at-you behaviour by giving her the cookie or more tickles. But take the praise up a notch when you’re first teaching her how to make eye contact, so she’s extra pumped to keep gazing at you. The moment she looks, give her the biscuit along with cheers and a statement such as “great looking!!” or “Wow, you looked!!”
Hope your kiddo’s eyes are on you soon! Give us a shout if you have any questions or need help.
Photo from iStock