My friend Missie Walker Carman, M. Ed., who specializes in autism in her practice Verbal Behavior Network in Birmingham, AL, shared this article on Facebook. I asked her permission to include it here on the site. The author, William Y. Nason, MS, Clinical Psychologist, is a colleague of hers.
Please Don’t Force Me To Look At You!
The best way to induce anxiety in children with autism is to prompt them to look at you. When many children are trying to listen to what you are saying, prompting them to look at your eyes will often interfere with them being able to listen to you. There are three primary reasons for this:
1. Many children have auditory processing problems. Research has shown that people on the spectrum often look at your mouth, rather than your eyes. This would make sense if they need to look at your mouth to better understand what you are saying.
2. Some children use peripheral vision to view things. For them, direct vision is too intense, so they look with their peripheral vision. Because of visual sensitivities, direct vision is too overwhelming to them. So when they are looking at you, they will appear to be looking away from you.
3. Many adults on the spectrum have told me that they become overwhelmed by the intensity of looking directly into your eyes. Since they cannot read the emotional information, it feels very intimidating, very scary.
So forcing a child to look at you is not increasing their understanding, but often inhibiting it.
Like everyone, looking at someone is much easier when we do it under our own volition, rather than when someone prompts us. Same goes for all communication. We have found that children with ASD will look at you more frequently, when indirectly invited to, not told to. Use the following tips and you will find the child looking at you more frequently:
1. When talking to the child, position yourself so you are in front of the child and at their eye level. When your face is in their field of vision, it will get their attention better.
2. Use less words and more nonverbal language when communicating. Use more animated facial expressions, and exaggerated gestures to communicate, and the child will need to reference your face to obtain the information needed. Use words to augment your nonverbal language while conveying most of information nonverbally. I animate my facial expressions which draws their attention.
3. When the child stops referencing your nonverbal communication, try pausing briefly until they look at you to see what is happening. Invite the child to check back with you regularly to stay coordinated with you by pausing patiently.
So invite facial referencing; do not demand eye contact. And please do not grab and turn their face to you.
Older teens and young adults can learn the value of giving eye contact, once they are able to choose to do it rather than forced. Since many people on the spectrum need to have rules for when to do things, a good rule of thumb is to provide brief eye contact when starting and again when ending your turn of interaction. So each time you take your turn, you establish brief eye contact and then again when you end your turn. This is one rule that several adults have told me works well for them.
Thanks for sharing the great tips Missie!