Breaking Eye Contact ...
There Is More There... Than Meets The Eye!!!
UPDATE Dec. 2005: All parents are encouraged to read critical information as it relates to the issue of FACE BLINDNESS in persons on the autism spectrum. Persons who suffer from FACE BLINDNESS state that "looking straight ahead" provides the worst vision for them... whereas using peripheral vision (looking sideways) provides the best vision for them. This may be yet another CRITICAL piece to the puzzle of "lack of eye contact" in these children! This issue would also go a LONG way in explaining issues with "reading of emotions in others", "social issues", etc. The issue of FACE BLINDNESS is something all parents of children on the autism spectrum need to be aware of!
When it comes to eye contact in the autistic child, many a parent will attest to the fact that maintaining eye contact with an autistic child is a difficult task indeed.
Autistic children have issues with vision and many seem to be helped by enzymes and cod liver oil (use only a brand that has been tested for heavy metal content... check with manufacturers). Most parents on message discussion boards seem comfortable with a brand called Nordic Naturals, http://www.nordicnaturals.com/consumer/products_codliver.html, but, again, do your homework... and check each time you buy a product as they can change over time.
Zachary recently experienced such a negative reaction to cod liver oil that I will NEVER again give him any cod liver oil. The brand I had was purchased from a local health food store and was made by a company whose website stated the oil was indeed tested for heavy metals. Zachary's reaction was so severe, however, that I have decided to have the bottle's contents tested. I encourage all parents to read my section on our personal experience with Cod Liver Oil and to be aware of what I believe is a very real issue for children with autism.
The vitamin A in cod liver oil helps remove issues with "sideways glances" while enzymes seem to help many many children, including Zachary, give better eye contact.
As with so many other issues with "the senses", however, I truly believe that in terms of breaking eye contact, there is more here than meets the eye!
What continued to puzzle me for a long time was the fact that even with things to physically help restore the eyes, the cod liver oil and the enzymes, I still felt Zachary had great difficulty maintaining eye contact. He had made some progress, but then, he always seemed to slip back somewhat. I knew it wasn't that he couldn't physically look at me. There were plenty of glances into each others eyes that I had so cherished. So, if it wasn't completely a physical issue, that the "capability" to make eye contact was indeed there, then what was it? Why did the Zachary so regularly and so completely want to avoid eye contact so often?
It did not take me very long to understand this behavior when I considered it in terms of issues with "partiality". Breaking eye contact is simply another coping mechanism for the autistic child. If you think about this in terms of the autistic child's inability to deal with the partial... again, it all makes perfect sense.
For example, the act itself of looking someone in the eyes involves "looking at 2 eyes"... that in itself is difficult for the autistic child since he can't deal with "partials" ... and the 2 eyes are simply 2 parts of the face... that in itself is a problem for the autistic child and is enough to make him want to break eye contact. But, the "part" that we've all missed for so long when it comes to eye contact is the fact that breaking it... with anything... is also a coping mechanism for the autistic child. The child breaks contact with anything that is "partial" or offends him... be that his mother's eyes or a book we would like him to read. Not able to deal with the "pages"... the "parts of the whole book", the child simply chooses not to focus on a particular page, but rather, will often simply turn all the pages quickly, shut the book and try to run away!
I've started to pay more attention to this issue of eye contact recently. I believe it is important to label each eye for the child... the left eye and the right eye. I believe it may also help to say that: "the left eye is to see things on the left" and "the right eye is to see things on the right"... and "both eyes are used to see everything - together". Again, in my opinion, the use of labels is critical and for the autistic child, these labels must be very very specific when first explaining exactly how "parts" fit together to form "a whole". Just labeling these 2 things as "eyes", in my opinion, won't do it... you have to label EACH eye and explain its purpose, as I've just stated. This, in my opinion, is also true of all other body parts having a left and a right.
Look At Me!!!
Why "Looking Through You" Is Simply Another Coping Mechanism...
This issue with the inability to properly process partiality also explains why the autistic child always seems to be "looking through you" rather than "at you". If you think about it, a person in the child's environment is but a "part" to the "whole" ... if the child is unable to integrate "that part", "the person", then, that person is "not seen". This, combined with the desire to break eye contact because "2 eyes" - "two parts to a whole" (creating a stressful situation for the autistic child) indeed make for a difficult task when it comes to making a child "look at you". Just as the "child" needs to have "his label", so too, do I believe labeling "the part" as "mommy" or "daddy" or "a friend" would greatly help the child in this area of "looking through you".
Blank stares also now made more sense. The eye, by design, needed light in order to "see", but, much of our sight was also dependent on motion. In fact, the eye itself was an object in constant motion, forever adjust to light as it moved. In addition, the very act of "seeing" involves motion. Your eyes are not "blank stares" as they observe objects... rather, they are constantly in motion. In a normal person, to do what an autistic child does in terms of "blank stares" was, in my opinion, a very difficult thing to do. To simply "stare" at something, without moving your eyes was indeed almost impossible to do. Yet, in the autistic child, "blank stares" were commonplace. Why was that? Why was an "activity" I considered so difficult to do - staring at one spot - something the autistic child engaged in so much? Was this simply another coping mechanism - the autistic child's attempt at doing away with motion? I truly wondered!
So herein lies what I believe is the critical issue with eye contact... the fact that the autistic child uses "breaking eye contact" as an actual coping mechanism to not have to deal with what is perceived as "stressful" - if you don't physically see the "parts" you can't make sense of, then as the saying goes: "out of sight, out of mind"... and stress levels are thus greatly reduced for the child. Eye contact - something so critical in teaching, yet so difficult for the autistic child!
So, what's the answer. Not surprisingly, again, I believe labeling is key in helping with overall issues of breaking eye contact as this relates to the autistic child's coping strategy.
I personally have recently spent more time with Zachary on this specific issue. I decided to label everything for him when it comes to "his eyes". What I decided to do was to not only label each eye as "this is your left eye" and "this is your right eye", but to also physically show him the purpose of each eye. Therefore, I covered his left eye, for example, and said, "your left eye is to see on the left... if I hide it, you can't see on the left". As I did this, I positioned myself out of his line of sight for the left eye so that he could no longer see me. I then did the same thing with his right eye. Then, I finished by uncovering his eyes one at a time and saying: "left eye plus right eye means I can see everything". After doing this a couple of times, I could tell Zachary understood the purpose of having a "left" and a "right" eye. In a very short time, I could already see that this helped him to better tolerate the "parts" (the eyes) to the whole (the face) and I am hoping that this will also help with his issues with eye contact in general... that he will come to understand that he needs both eyes for a reason... to see everything. :o)
The autistic child, in my opinion, needs to be a visual learner when the visuals "don't offend", but perhaps needs to be an auditory learner as well, in instances where the visuals are just too much to cope with.
So, how do you maintain eye contact on those objects such as the pages of a book that a child needs to focus on to learn? The key may lie in drawing attention to the "ordered" parts... perhaps the numbers on the page - the child may then be able to proceed more easily. Counting is a coping mechanism the autistic child generally loves... thus, it may be that simply drawing attention to page numbers showing the pages "as parts to the whole book" will suffice.
Perhaps we need books that are labeled showing the parts and the whole for the child... so that instead of just one page number at the bottom of the page, you would have something like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
with the more of a "whole" provided by counting, and yet the page number 4 being showed more brightly to show "this" is the current page and that we have more to go. I tend to think such things would help.
I encourage any parent who has "found a trick" to maintaining eye contact with both people and things to share their insights by sending me an email via my website. I truly believe parents hold within them observations and techniques, perhaps even unknowingly, that are surely key to further removing the shackles of autism. Perhaps as more parents come to understand autism in terms of the inability to properly process the whole without first understanding the partial, that many more "tricks to the trade" will be uncovered by parents in order that, together, we may help as many children as possible with so many issues. :o)
This is one area where I do think that behavior therapy may be necessary provided the therapist understands these issues with partiality! Simply teaching eye contact with a person won't do it... you have to teach eye contact with "things" too... books, papers, blackboards, objects of any kind necessary in teaching.
To see "other things" I did to help Zachary increase his eye contact, please refer to my book 2 section called "Exercises I Do At Home".