Eye Contact- Fostering your Child with Autism to WANT to look at you

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Eye Contact- Fostering your Child with Autism to WANT to look at you

“Look at me”….I don’t know about you, but each time I hear that I am transported back to my childhood, when I’m in trouble with my Mom. I would come home and first thing I knew to do is NOT look at my mom….because well, gaze holds all sorts of emotion!! Maybe if I did not look at her, she would think I did not see her and I could escape upstairs…yeah, you know how that ends!!

To my surprise fast forward to when I became a mom and then for my second and third child, a mom to two children with Autism…I found myself hearing some people tell me to instruct my child to look at me for any sort of eye contact. I of course did just that for awhile…because like any mom, I wanted desperately to have my beautiful boys look in my eyes. I felt as though there were two things standing in the way of me and my boys. One was that they did not look at me and the other is they did not talk.( I will write on that next weekJ) If they would just look at me….and talk to me….ahhh, my heart would be in such a better place!!! Ok and it was for a short time because I was thrilled with any eye contact I was getting even if I did have to prompt it.   Whenever my boys did look at me or when they used words for that instrumental request for juice or crackers… I melted!! But……. to me it still felt *different* then my typical kids. I wasn’t sure if that was all it was going to be or if I should dig deeper.  Would it just improve as they got older? It was one of those things that kept me up at night, and I know you know what I mean!!

For me, it was nagging so I went searching ….seaching for answers that I was not sure there was an actual question too. Most of the websites I went on talked about holding a piece of candy up and when a child looked then they were rewarded by that candy. I read sites that talked about rewarding a child with social reinforcers,, playing with a favorite toy, etc. One site said have the child put makeup on you…so they are close to you and the chances of them making eye contact are greater.   I have to say I went through many sites that talked about trying to set up a reward for my child whenever they looked at me. So I thought, hmmm I don’t have to do that with my typical children. I mean I get that my other two were dealing with Autism but still, I felt like there was a gap….and I was right! What I learned to *search* for was not Autism and Eye contact but instead just Eye contact. Then it all made sense….even why I avoided eye contact with mom!! I needed to understand WHY we look! It is second nature for those of us who are not on the spectrum so I needed to take something that I never had to learn, but just *did* and understand *how* to teach this intuitive process to my own two children with Autism.

Eye contact is about communicating emotional information. We can do a lot with eye contact…check out this video


How many different conversations can you see going on with eye contact/Gaze? Our eyes are merely the showman for our thoughts. When someone tells me to look at them, it is instantly nothing to do with a positive emotion or actual thinking…Im irritated.

So if eye contact is something we do to communicate emotional information, I wanted to make sure that my boys WANTED to communicate with me when they looked at me.

A Look can be intimidating, submissive, playful, and many other things. For a child, a LOOK is to share information or perspective from a trusted person in their life. This is the foundation step that a child uses to understand why the other persons Eyes hold information for them to process!  This is an example of the importance of this developmental milestone    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyxMq11xWzM

This foundational milestone is crucial to the further perspective taking ability in all children….including our children with Autism. Teaching Eye contact as a behavior misses the incredibly important thinking aspect on why people look at each other to begin with! And ….. our kids can develop this Dynamic thinking for perspective. It starts with them learning that our face holds the key to the experience sharing in any interaction. BUT, and this is huge, THEY need to make this discovery with our guidance. And this discovery has nothing to do with telling them the discovery we want them to make, which is what the words “look at me” do. Any command to a child, any child, turns off their need to think! It is the difference between * get your shoes on* and the child obeys or *we are leaving* and the child has to go through a thought process of what is needed before they can leave. These milestones in thinking create and develop good problem solvers!!

Here are 3 strategies to help your child * want to look at you* From the RDI Program- Relationship Development Intervention

  1. Limit talking- Use less words and pause between thoughts ….not in a strange way but just more deliberate ( limit the chatter and amount of words used) If we are chit chatting away all the directions and instructions there is no reason for our kids to actually look at us for any sort of information, we are providing them all their thinking through our instruction. Once it registers that we stopped talking, they will look to find out why and this continued practice is instrumental in learning to reference others for information
  2. Use more non verbal communication- Be more expressive with communication. Oh OH….or a surprised look on your face will cause your child to reference you. Something like clearing your throat helps your child to process that he needs to see what is going on. Again, this is all practice for your child to see that *WE* hold information, not just in our words, but in body language and facial expression. If I were to say to you…”Nice shirt” with a smirk, we would be able to access that I really did not mean the words I spoke! To get to this foundation, we must start at the beginning.
  3. Use more self talk – We all have a thinking process going on before we speak the words. When appropriate, speak your thought process out loud so your child can understand that you have thoughts just like he does. Something like, Wow, delicious when you take a bite of food. DO NOT ask them if they like theirs…self talk is placing no demands on your child but simply giving them another vehicle to understand and become interested in your perspective. Demands can be very stressful for your child….what we want is for them to see your emotion, see your thoughts and as long as there are no demands placed on them to turn on the fight or flight mode, begin to internalize that others can think differently then they do. This foundational skill emerges at 18 months old in a typical child.