“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
How many times do we say this sentence as parents, hoping our child will retain the information we’re giving them? This is true, certainly, with typically-developing kids, but eye contact and autism are equally, if not more, important.
Importance of eye contact and face attention:
To develop joint attention and social referencing, your child should be encouraged to look at you. For many children with autism, this is especially challenging. There are some who believe that working on eye contact should NOT be a goal for a child with autism. Others feel that it is important to try to work on this skill because so much information can be learned from a person’s face and because, in our culture, it is considered to be socially appropriate to look at others when talking with/interacting with them. This goes back to what we were saying about stimming, and about other social skills for kids with autism: that we need to encourage and hone the skills that will allow them to access the knowledge and educational opportunities that come with socialization.
Eye contact and autism: Tips for making eye contact easier
- Let your child wear sunglasses at first.
- Hold up their hands at their eyes like they are looking through binoculars when you want your child to look at you.
- Try different positions (maybe the child on their back, looking up from the floor).
- Try different distances (maybe your child can look at you from five feet away but not two feet away).
- Put stickers on their face or wear a funny hat.
- Look in the mirror together to get eye contact instead of having your child look directly at their face.
- Use an animated voice and exaggerated expressions.
Addition tips for eye contact and autism:
As much as possible, be at the child’s eye level. It is hard for kids to look up continually at adults; try looking up for a while and notice how your eyes get tired. Notice how much easier and how much more comfortable it is to look straight ahead.
Stand in your child’s line of sight, and hold objects up to your eyes when you give them to your child. Try for two inches from your face, right in front of the bridge of your nose. It can also help to use exciting toys and objects, such as a toy that spins or lights up, to catch your child’s attention.
You can try an edited version of the ‘look at me when I’m talking to you’ line: when the child wants something from you, say, “If you want the ____, look in my eyes.” But ONLY do this with objects that are not necessary for the child to have. For example, do not do this with the child’s drinks or meals. However, if it is something optional but desired by the child, like maybe a new toy or a small snack, try this.
Remember: it also may be hard for your child to look at you while you are holding or touching him or her because some children with autism cannot process multiple senses at the same time. So it might be that they will look at you once you have finished talking. Every child is different and it may take some time to figure out when your child feels most comfortable looking at your face. Once the strategy is determined, work to increase the time your child will look at you.