Gaze Aversion and Autism

by | Jan 18, 2016 | Rachelle's Corner

Gaze aversion in autism has been the subject of many scholarly articles and therapeutic interventions.

I remember a well-known speaker suggesting that a nanny had been especially helpful by saying “look at me,” while using just the right pressure on the chin to ensure that the child would look at her eyes.

Other early interventions included “quiet hands,” along with admonitions to stop stereotypical behavior.

The Importance of Reading Signals From Your Child

As RDI® became more developmentally based, and as the Guiding Relationship became more foundational for all of our work, we began to understand the importance of reading signals; sometimes internally-sometimes externally generated.

A small piece of this process is an area that comes naturally to parents but one that we have found takes considerable thought and preparation for parents who have children on the spectrum.

This is an area sometimes referred to as framing.

Easily understood, if you consider a photo and the purpose of the frame in drawing your attention to the subject matter.

Having said this, it may be easier to talk about support if we leave the picture frame on the wall rather than try to make this static analogy dynamic.

Related: Dynamic Communication Tips

I’ll return to gaze in a moment.

But, with any area where we are involved guiding another person, whether parenting or mentorship, it’s most important to have a clear definition of what you hope to accomplish.

Having a clear-cut objective that is reasonably stated within a developmental track is extremely important.

Without this objective in mind, it is possible to inadvertently mistake an activity for the objective one is attempting to address.

So, while gaze aversion is something we all do when we are thinking, it can also be a signal of stress, especially when an activity chosen to address an objective is not used in a way that helps the child reach toward his own competence.

Thus, helping a child understand that they can reference a parent to find meaning and take action when confused is a delicate undertaking.

Finding Your Child’s Edge of Competence

A simple walk can establish a regulatory pattern and small changes in the walk can provide enough small differences to trigger this response.

But, imagine if an enormous amount of complexity is introduced and the guide introduces multiple changes at a very fast pace.

The self-perception of competence is undermined.

Rather than figuring out where to look and how to decide what to do, the child is placed in a state of chaos.

Do you know where this edge of competence is for your child?

Many factors can be combined to smooth the path that will support your ability to lead and your child’s desire to take on his own learning.

In RDI® we are always looking for a way to help children realize the importance of using their own minds, not those of others to solve problems.


  1. Erin French

    I would genuinely like to know if there is real value, developmentally or otherwise, in “training” these kids to make eye contact when communicating. In “Finding the Gray”, Dr. Timothy Wahlberg states that the “wiring” of the autistic brain disallows the ability to both listen or speak and simultaneously sustain eye contact. It takes so much energy and focus just to process incoming information that it is overwhelming and overstimulating to try to maintain eye contact as well. Is it solely to help them adhere to social norms so they don’t stand out? Is it to prevent conflict from others not understanding? Is it so they can see the nonverbal cues of others? What is the developmental impact if they never attain this ability?

  2. Nancy

    Hi Erin. I love your question. I believe these are the types of questions that need to be asked. I am a grandmother of a sweet 2 year old who “averts gaze”. I have recently noticed that at 66, I too will “avert gaze” during certain conversations that require all my focus to process the content. Maybe it is just ok, maybe it is actually a helpful inborn strategy, maybe it isn’t, and maybe we dont have to make it mean one thing or the other. Just saying! Again, I love your question.

  3. Shelley Limerick

    I have a friend who is a single dad with Autism. His son Victorio is 10 years old. For a year and half he was riding the bus to and from to school. Able to say water and do other activities on his own. However, he had a disruptive care giver and he degressed. His psychotherapist is not very helpful. What can be done at this stage of his development?

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