Autism and Eye Contact: Should You Be Teaching Eye Contact to Children with Autism?

Many children with autism struggle with and have poor eye contact. Both parents and professionals often wonder if we should focus on teaching eye contact, and, if so, how to teach this important nonverbal skill. Today I’m going to get on my soapbox about autism and eye contact.

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Your child’s not making eye contact, should you do anything?

When my son Lucas was first starting ABA, Applied Behavior Analysis, in 1999, I was surprised to see that some ABA programs included a “Look At Me” program. Our consultant didn’t recommend this program back then, and I’m not sure if she didn’t like the program or if she didn’t think Lucas’s eye contact was bad enough to work on at the moment. Even today, there are Behavior Analysts who are using some variation of the “Look At Me” program. I think it’s actually a bad idea to focus so heavily on teaching this, especially to children with autism who have delayed language skills.

Eye contact as well as pointing and gesturing are considered nonverbal language skills that develop naturally in typically-developing kids. But, for 2 year olds who can’t speak at all, or even a 6 or 16 year old who are not conversational, teaching eye contact should be the least of our worries. Unlike pointing or other hand gestures that you can model and prompt, eye contact can’t be prompted. Even if you take a child’s chin and move it, which I, by the way, would never recommend but have seen people do, the child’s eyes don’t have to follow the chin. In essence, there is no way to physically prompt eye contact.

Even for conversational kids and adults, it’s probably not a good idea to ever teach eye contact. There are many books and articles written by adults with autism who write about the stress that they felt when well-meaning parents and teachers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations. Some adults who speak and write fluently suggest that pushing eye contact makes them more distracted and unable to focus on what they’re saying. Even though I don’t recommend focusing on, pushing, or forcing eye contact, there are a few strategies that will increase social communication skills with eye contact improvements that you can try.

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5 Steps for How to Improve Eye Contact Skills

Step number 1: The more fun and entertaining you are, the better the eye contact will be. Pairing yourself with reinforcement is the subject of a previous blog, so you can check that out and learn how to pair yourself in all kinds of situations. Pairing will help eye contact.

Step number 2: If you’re the giver of good things that the child wants, eye contact as well as smiles will probably be better too. One trick when you’re giving things to children or when you’re seeing if they want something is to hold it up not to your eyes but to your mouth then say the word two or three times. If the child seems to want a banana, you hold up a banana and you say, “Banana. Banana. Banana.” If I had the choice between a child looking at my mouth or looking at my eyes, I go with my mouth every time because I want them to start looking at my whole face, especially my mouth, as I’m saying the word slowly three times.

Step number 3:  Get down to your child’s level when talking as much as possible. You can’t expect the child to look at your face or understand language if you’re too far away.

Step number 4:  I would pair up a table and use Early Learner programs like my Shoebox program, which almost always results in better verbal and nonverbal communication skills. I did another video blog on table time, so you may want to check that out too.

Step number 5: When you’re outside or even in your house or school building, engage a child in active and fun activities by pushing them on a swing, bouncing the child on a ball or the trampoline, or even blowing bubbles. All of these activities, instead of standing in back of them and pushing their back, you want to be in front of the child at their level as much as possible to pair up these fun activities. Fun activities with you in front of them will result in better eye contact.

In summary, I would never try to force eye contact or focus on it with structured programming. But there are some autism eye contact strategies that would encourage eye contact with children with autism which include being more fun, being a giver, not a taker, pairing up table time, and finally getting in front of and down at the child’s level when talking or playing. If you liked this video blog, I would love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up wherever you’re watching it, and share the video with others who might benefit. To learn more about increasing language in children with autism and decreasing problem behaviors, sign up for my free workshop, and I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?