Scientists have shed new light on why people with autism often find it difficult to make eye contact. Research shows that avoidance of eye contact is a way of decreasing an unpleasant sensation caused by an over stimulation in a particular part of the brain and is not simply a sign of social and personal indifference or an inability to ‘read others.’

The findings come from the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (f MRI) which show differences in the brain pathways of people on the spectrum compared with typically developing individuals.

Scientific breakthroughs of this nature challenge assumptions that can be made when we are confronted by behaviours that are deemed socially inappropriate or odd. But those assumptions are also based on our own cultural expectations of what is ‘normal’ behaviour. In Western cultures the use of eye contact most of the time is expected and a lack of it attributed to shyness, lack of interest, attention or plain rudeness.

‘Look at me when I’m talking to you’ may be a commonly used instruction in a Western classroom setting, but in China or Japan it would deemed disrespectful for a student to make eye contact with a tutor. Intense eye contact signals aggression in some African cultures and among Middle Eastern societies the use of eye contact is less appropriate and governed along strict gender rules.

So, what should we be doing to help improve our communication with someone on the spectrum? The report in an American scientific journal suggests that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes may cause them a great deal of anxiety. There are also many recorded examples from people on the spectrum who report feelings of intense discomfort, anxiety and confusion when making eye contact:

“it burns”

“people do not appreciate how unbearably difficult it is for me to look at a person”

“It makes me uncomfortable… I look at their eyebrows or nose or ears, focusing very hard and not looking directly into their eyes.”

So, should we encourage eye contact or not? This particular study suggests that, as ever, it is a complex issue as people on the spectrum are all unique individuals and need understanding of their unique personalities and profiles. In other words, there is no one size fits all solution – find out what works, and what does not for the person you live with, work alongside or care for.

Here’s a summary of some of the suggested approaches to help those who find eye contact difficult, unhelpful or deeply uncomfortable:

First of all find out what eye contact means for the individual – does it help or make it more difficult to pay attention and communicate. If it’s uncomfortable show him or her some other ways to show their interest:

  • Staying within a conversational distance rather than wandering away
  • Using phrases such as ‘yes’ or ‘hmm hmm’ when the other person pauses
  • Telling someone ‘I’m listening’
  • Praise efforts to make even fleeting eye contact “I like how you are looking at me”
  • Talk about their special interest to encourage eye contact
  • Use visual supports to aid communication and understanding

There are many different approaches including the use of professional therapists to help people on the spectrum to overcome the difficulties in coping with eye contact, social communication, understanding and interaction. The Autism Group, alongside many recognised and respected autism experts also advocate understanding, acceptance and support of these unique individuals.

“And now I know it is perfectly natural for me not to look at someone when I talk. Those of us with Asperger’s are just not comfortable doing it. In fact, I don’t really understand why it’s considered normal to stare at someone’s eyeballs,” John Elder Robison from The Art of Autism