This guest blog post was originally published on the saiconnections blog page. You can read the original here.
“He runs around all the time, totally oblivious to everything around him.
I’m just tired, running after him. Can you help me improve his eye contact?”
The shakiness in this young mother’s voice gives her mental state away. She looks at me expectantly. I want to help her. I wish I could magically fix her son’s eye-contact challenge.
But I can’t. Because I know there is more.
Many mothers want their children to improve their eye contact. If you are one of them, I hope to give you something to ponder over with this quick letter.
I know what you are going through. I understand your despair about your child’s lack of eye contact.
Years ago, I experienced what you are experiencing now.
You know that your child is intelligent. If only he would look around to see what is happening around him.
If only he would look at you and share emotions with you.
If only he looked at other children and observed how they played, he could play with them.
If he made proper eye contact, he would be normal, right?
I want to share a personal memory with you.
Anil and I were trained at a specialist autism clinic in the US. One of the first drills was called, ‘look at me.’
Each time Mohit looked at us asked to, he was rewarded with a high five and an M&M.
We celebrated the day he was able to look at us for a full five seconds! It was party time!
But all the ‘look at me’ drill taught Mohit was to look. And I didn’t realize it until late.
It took me years to understand that this wasn’t what I wanted.
Of course, you want your child to look at you. But have you thought how it feels for him? Why does he not look at you or his environment? Why is eye contact difficult for him?
Several people with autism have said that eye contact is painful for them.
Some have shared that they cannot listen and look at the same time.
Still others have voiced that it creates a sensory overload they cannot manage.
Here’s an interesting perspective by Judy Endow, a brilliant woman who is also on the autism spectrum.
Related: ASD Myths About Eye Contact
Someone also wrote to a Philip, a young boy with autism. She has a nephew on the autism spectrum and asked why it is difficult for individuals with autism to make eye contact. Here was his response.
My dear fellow parent, you want your child to look at you, but meaningfully. And more importantly, in a way comfortable for him.
I want to talk about the difference between eye contact and dynamic eye gaze here.
Eye contact suggests a rote, mechanical, static act.
Dynamic eye gaze is a fluid, flexible ability.
If eye contact is sustained for too long, it looks unnatural. You know the blank, unseeing stare that I’m talking about, right?
Dynamic gaze IS natural and fluid. It flows according to the need of the situation.
Imagine a conversation with your child, where he just stares at you with that glazed look – without responding.
Now imagine a conversation where he looks at you occasionally, but understands what you say and responds meaningfully.
Think of a classroom, where a 5-year-old is instructed repeatedly to join a line.
Now think about him looking up to see his friends standing in a line, quickly putting his toys away, and joining it.
In both instances, the former is what happens when we force eye contact. The latter occurs when children with autism develop dynamic eye gaze.
Eye contact is a response to an instruction… an end in itself.
Dynamic gaze helps to understand a social situation, or learn something new.
It took me fifteen years to realize that I wanted Mohit to develop dynamic gaze, not force him to make eye contact.
It doesn’t have to be the same for you.
Google provides you with the latest information within a few seconds. Use it to read the experiences of people on the Spectrum.
Learn from our experiences (of people who have committed mistakes). Circumvent the queue and get the fast pass.
Above all, make that right choice. Go for dynamic gaze.
Through this your child will look at you and share emotions. He will scan his environment.
He will observe people and understand the finer nuances of communication.
In my next article, I will share tips about how to you can enable your child to develop visual referencing, so that you can achieve the above goals.
P.S. Your child can overcome the challenges autism poses. He can utilize his hidden potential.
Kamini Lakhani is a, RDI® program consultant and the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center). She has over 19 years of experience working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and currently serves as the director of our RDI Professional Training Center in Mumbai. She is the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center)