There’s been a long tradition with teaching staff and with Speech and Language Therapists working in schools that eye contact should be a goal. It is well known that Autistic individuals (whether that be children or adults) mostly avoid eye contact. Whilst it’s part of the way we communicate, it shouldn’t be used as a necessity for an individual who feels that it is uncomfortable. Whilst it does show that you’re listening and showing an interest, it’s not a fair expectation for neurodiverse children.
Autistic children can find making and maintaining eye contact physically and emotionally uncomfortable as well as unnatural. It adds an extra layer of stress and has been reported to increase distractions rather than reduce them. Children who engage in conversations in their own way (i.e., with reduced eye contact) are not shown to suffer with schooling, work, or social interaction.
By having fun through meaningful activities, I often experience that ‘BINGO’ moment (a phrase coined by Alex @meaningfulspeech) where the child is enjoying themselves and naturally makes eye contact. There is no demand on them, they are in a fun, engaging environment which suit their strengths and supports their needs.
Following this, I often reflect on this question ‘Should we make eye contact as a goal?’
It very much depends on the situation. If it places more demands on the child and becomes stressful. Then no. There are many strategies we can use which gain eye contact without placing extra demands on the child. We need to be mindful to adapt the environment and not place neurotypical expectations to meet the needs of neurodiverse children.
How can you encourage eye contact without demand?
- If you’re using toys, try holding them up to your eye level.
- You can adjust your position, try sitting face to face during play.
- Always get down to your child’s level. This might mean that you lay on the floor if your child is positioned in this way.
- During play, waiting is extremely powerful. Before a key part of the activity, wait and see if your child looks at you. Remember silence is golden!
- The best way I find is: do something unusual during play. It might be that you spray shaving foam with the lid still on. Or you bring out a wow toy and make it spin/light up or make a noise. A balloon can be good – see video clip. Use the excitement of the activity, and wait to see if you achieve that ‘BINGO’ moment.
- Create opportunities when there are no toys involved such as during ‘tickles’ or ‘hide and seek’. Autistic children find it difficult to shift their attention between a toy and an adult. So by removing one option, you’re setting them up to succeed.
Remember, it takes practice and time for you to develop these skills. Try one at a time and experiment, see which works best for your child. If you need speech, language or communication support or advice, I am always here to help.
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