Eye contact needs meaning to make it useful and natural. Telling someone to look at you isn’t natural or particularly useful.
Eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication. It involves looking into or in the direction of another person’s eyes. Most people don’t look directly at another person’s eyes. Instead, they look around the bridge of their nose and near their eyes. Eye contact doesn’t last very long: each gaze is only three seconds and when people look directly at each other, it’s for less than a second! Also, when talking to another person, we look at them 30% of the time or less.
We adults make eye contact for five main reasons:
- Giving and getting information – Eye contact lets the other person know we’re listening and understanding what they’re saying.
- Regulating interactions – Eye contact helps organize and control when each person speaks. Interestingly, it’s when we’re finished talking that we tend to look at the other person.
- Expressing emotion – Eye contact helps us flirt and show attraction and general interest in another person or it can show our anger or disapproval.
- Exercising social control – Eye contact helps show hostility and aggression but it also can be used to convince or persuade someone (picture the salesperson who makes a lot of eye contact as he tells you the merits of his product)
- Helping achieve goals – Eye contact helps you get assistance (at a restaurant, when you want your bill, you try to catch the waiter’s eye across the room so you can signal what you want).
Eye contact ‘gone wrong’ is when a stranger looks at you too long. That can feel downright creepy. If you avoid eye contact, others may think you don’t care, you’re trying to avoid something, or maybe you’re defensive or embarrassed. Darned if you do and darned if you don’t!
We know babies like human faces and respond to direct eye contact from an early age.
Preschoolers figure out that eye contact can help them start and stop interactions with others and get what they want. They can look at something and then at Mom or Dad to signal they want it.
As children mature, they learn to use eye contact to share enjoyment. It’s not until children are about 11 years old, that they start using eye contact for the reasons outlined above. They begin to understand that eye contact gives feedback to the person they’re talking to. They recognize that, by making eye contact, they can gather important information about the other person, like does he understand or cares about what you’re saying?
One of the first things that people notice in children with autism is their weak or inconsistent eye contact. There are two plausible reasons for that:
- Processing language is demanding. When you speak, you need to plan and organize your ideas, communicate them and then see if the other person understands. These are all demanding from a processing point of view. Most people, autistic or not, look away when doing it. If you have to make eye contact and process language, it might just throw you into overload.
- Eye contact is overstimulating. Many people with autism find it over-stimulating to look at another person’s eyes. Some say that it literally hurts. Read more here.
So back to the question of why we don’t work on eye contact.
When helping children develop skills, I believe we should use main criteria: the approach must be
- developmentally appropriate,
- culturally grounded, and
- respectful of the experience of the person being taught.
We don’t expect the adult uses of eye contact to emerge until middle childhood. Use what’s culturally appropriate; in some cases, not all five of the reasons outlined above will be appropriate. And, we have to understand that it can hurt and overload the person with autism if we push them to make eye contact.
We don’t work directly on eye contact within spark*, spark*EL, and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life. We use it as a meaningful social and communicative tool. We make sure children understand why we make eye contact with other people. We also help them understand when and where it’s necessary and appropriate. We work on eye contact so the children will use it in ways that don’t produce cognitive or sensory overload …. or make them seem ‘strange’ to others.