New Research for Eye Contact and Autism

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Eye contact for children with autism is frustrating. We are so used to having people look you in the eye, if only for a brief time, to acknowledge that they are paying attention and not drifting off into some other thought. It's also a known sign of autism to have someone refuse to look you in the eye. I noticed that with my sons, both of which would be hesitant to look you in the eye if they don't know you. For years, those of us in the autism community thought it was because they just couldn't do it.

But, according to LiveScience, kids with autism avoid eye contact because they process more in their peripheral vision. That is, they don't process stuff by looking right at you, but rather from the side.

Brain scans of children with autism vs. neurotypical children have shown that the brain's cortex of a child with autism is more active with peripheral vision, while those neurotypical children are more active with objects in their direct field of vision. So by not looking at us directly, our children with autism have been gathering more information than if they were forced to look at us directly.

For the past five years, I have been working hard to get my oldest to look me in the eye, and at times he can do it. Now I find out that the exercise is less advantageous for him based on this study! The study also sets forth the hypothesis that social withdrawal is a learned process associated with not looking directly into the eyes of those around us. We withdraw from the child with autism because we think they have withdrawn, and it starts a vicious circle of learned social separation.

It's important to note that this is still all hypothetical, and the study needs additional peer review, but it's an interesting development. It could impact a lot of what we think we know about autism and limitations, and could expand a whole new set of skills for those on the spectrum.