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About eye contact - can I ask a question?

(33 Posts)
amber32002 Sat 01-Nov-08 09:29:56

I'm always slightly puzzled by the amount of importance that eye contact has for people who are not on the autistic spectrum. I'm just writing here as someone who's on the autistic spectrum and is really trying to understand this.

If a child was blind, clearly they wouldn't be able to make eye contact, and I guess no-one would be trying to insist they did.

People on the autistic spectrum often find eye contact painful and distressing and overloading because of the disability, (I certainly do). Rewarding us for doing something that 'hurts' (as some methods do when trying to teach children) has always seemed a bit odd. Research suggests that we avoid eye contact because the flickering of people's eye movements causes our brains to overload, as we have a hypersensitive bit in the brain.

For me, nothing happens when I look into someone's eyes other than me thinking "Oh heck - what on earth can I do to make it stop?" If I do manage it, I can't make it 'natural', so people end up thinking I'm lying, or being evasive, or being aggressive - so it's actually more of a problem than not doing it. The subtleties that others manage automatically can't be done by me at all. I know that when other people look into each other's eyes, there's a pattern of glance, look away, glance, look away that controls and regulates the contact between them, what they think of each other. The size of the pupils shows whether they like each other or not. So much natural automatic communication happens. Not for me it doesn't. It's like living in a world where everyone else can play the piano to international standards, and all I can do after 40+ years is tap out a rather flat tune with two fingers which annoys everyone around me, perhaps more than if I just kept my hands off the keyboard.

What happens when you look into someone's eyes? What does it teach you? I wish I could understand...

misscutandstick Sat 01-Nov-08 09:42:28

TBH i cant concentrate either when looking in someones face - i have to look away to be able to concentrate, otherwise all i can think are these 2 beady eyes looking at me and my mind goes blank.

The only adbantage of being able to look into someones face is knowing that they've heard and/or understood. For (some) adults its important to them that they know that the child or person who they are speaking to is both listening and understanding.

As a parent of a child with ADHD, it was important to get some feedback that my child was at least in part listening to my instructions and not just "away with the fairies", but my child with autism - i dont press the issue at all and just hope that some of what ive said may be heard, but hes only 2.5 and non-verbal so i expect very little from him. HTH XXX

castlesintheair Sat 01-Nov-08 10:27:15

I don't understand the importance either. For me the initial eye contact glance is enough to know they have heard/acknowledged me. I find it uncomfortable staring into someone's eyes when I am talking (easier when they are talking) and certainly don't expect a child (or adult) to do so especially if it makes them uncomfortable.

I'm sure it's all about ticking boxes. It's one of the latest things on DS's IEP - 'to get DS to maintain eye contact throughout a conversation' How hard is that for a 6 year old boy?!

madmouse Sat 01-Nov-08 10:41:24

I work with child asylum seekers. when they are age disputed, ie home office says they are over 18, holding eye conact is often trotted out as proof by the assessing social worker

r3dh3d Sat 01-Nov-08 10:58:17

Good question amber.

I think one of the reasons for encouraging it in younger kids is that though for some kids it is unpleasant, for others they don't mind it and it would be useful but it's not instinctive. Absolutely agree there is no point trying for it if it is unpleasant or confusing for the child, but when they are eg 2 or 3 you can't yet tell which you have got. DD1 doesn't mind eye contact at all, it just doesn't occur to her.

I think part of the "point" of eye contact is it operates the turn-taking game of conversation. As Castles says, it's difficult for most of us to make eye contact while talking, though we make it instinctively while listening. Looking at the face helps to give you the cues as to when the other person is finishing speaking. So you know when to listen, and when to speak, and when the other person isn't actually quite ready to listen to you yet.

There's also a lot of emotional clues there - you know that a "fake" smile doesn't make the eyes crease up, whereas a real one does - there's quite a lot of that I believe. Reading faces like that is characteristically a thing you struggle with if you have ASD. So you get more info about what the person feels about what they say.

I think a lot of the info you pick up from it is subconscious/instinctive though presumably some of it is learned as a baby/toddler which is maybe why the interest in eye contact at a young age - maybe there's a developmental stage at which you can absorb this stuff so it becomes instinctive - otherwise you have to figure it out in "anthropologist on Mars" mode. If I'm listening to someone I certainly don't think "oh that was a fake smile so she's lying about what she was saying there" but I probably get a feeling of unease at that point in the conversation which you presumably would not.

misscutandstick Sat 01-Nov-08 11:11:25

good answer R3, never really thought of it like that, suppose im lucky in that way as I to get the 'unease' feeling from some faces, and some i instinctively feel comfortable with, and can certainly watch a persons face whilst listening if not whilst talking.... which in turn i suppose (because ive only just thought about it) must make the other person feel very ill at ease! oh well!

kettlechip Sat 01-Nov-08 11:39:34

I always instinctively look at people's eyes when I speak to them, it helps me gauge their feelings, emotions, sincerity, reaction to what I'm saying, and also forms a connection between myself and the person I'm speaking to.

I often used to feel uncomortable if I couldn't make eye contact with the person I was talking to. I don't now I'm more enlightened as to why some people find it so uncomfortable though!

allytjd Sat 01-Nov-08 12:09:13

I think eye contact is extremely variable between all kinds of people (I started to take note when DS2's problems in this area were brought to attention), and lets face it, it is even more unnerving when people maintain too much eye contact IMO. I realise my eye contact is better when listening than when speaking; when I speak I only look at the listener very intermittently and look away when speaking, can't do both at once! DH and DS2 are the same. We have brilliant talks when out for walks as we are side by side rather than opposite! DH and I have never really done the romantic staring into each others eyes either; it is just embarrassing and I always end up spotting blackheads or something, who kisses with their eyes open anyway?
I do encourage DS2 to use eye-contact in a few social situations for practical reasons ie. when trying to get someones attention, but he won't hear anything about the eyes being the windows of the soul from me!
Madmouse, that is bad, in many cultures it would be rude to make eye contact with your elders.

Acinonyx Sat 01-Nov-08 17:55:44

I'm doing some research which is connected to autism and theory of mind, i.e. the ability to understand another's feelings and thoughts. This is thought to be largely through non-verbal communication such as 'reading the mind in the eyes'. Funnily enough, the more I work on this stuff the harder I find it myself to cope with eye contact! I think the more aware you are of the whole topic the more impossible it is to feel at all relaxed about it. Soyou have a double problem, in that you may not be able to read expressions as easily as most people, and worse still, you KNOW than you can't.

cyberseraphim Sat 01-Nov-08 19:29:41

I have poor eye contact and tend to avoid it but I will use it when it is expected. I would never maintain it throughout a conversation. One ASD boy I know has intense unbroken eye contact. It is the 'to and fro' and of dropping and starting eye contact that generally indicates 'normality' but this will vary a lot for all individuals whether ASD or NT

stressa Sat 01-Nov-08 20:29:39

I used to have big problems with eye contact and reading expressions when I couldn't process faces properly. Now my vision is corrected it comes naturally. Not saying this is the case for everybody but is a higher incidence of visual processing problems re faces in ASD. See Ian Jordan's website.

amber32002 Sun 02-Nov-08 11:13:35

Thank you everyone, it all helps. Can I ask again, though?

Miscutandstick said something really interesting that I hadn't considered before:

"The only advantage of being able to look into someones face is knowing that they've heard and/or understood. For (some) adults its important to them that they know that the child or person who they are speaking to is both listening and understanding."

Oddly, the exact opposite is true for most of us on the autistic spectrum. If I'm looking at someone's face, I can hear/understand absolutely nothing of what they're saying. It stops my hearing from connecting with my brain, because the overload from the eyesight is using up all the 'sockets' in my brain. I have been told off time and time again for not making eye contact, so I know it makes people cross if I don't do it enough, but it's a disabling thing for me because it stops me from being able to take a proper part in the discussions. I have to cheat and unfocus my eyes/sit where they're silhouetted against a bright light/look at their lips instead of their eyes. Does this mean I don't have a quality of communication with people? No. I find my own ways round this. I'm not aware of missing out on anything in particular from eye contact, any more than a person who is blind would be worried about not being able to see the colour red or blue. If you never have, I think you really can't feel sad that you can't see it. But you can be sad that others react badly to you not knowing what red or blue is, or whether they are cross or happy (when they could so easily just say so).

I wonder if there has been any research at all into whether children with an ASD do enjoy/benefit from eye contact if encouraged to do so at an earlier age - whether they understand things any better, take in information any better etc. I wonder who'd know?

But a general question: what happens when you look into someone's eyes - what do you understand better than you would have done if you couldn't see their eyes? What does it feel like?

Stressa, interesting: What Ian Jordan describes as SPD is more or less word for word the same checklist as autism on the new ratings.

castlesintheair Sun 02-Nov-08 11:24:21

To answer your general question amber, for me it's not about looking into the eyes (I find that uncomfortable) but reading facial expressions. There is that initial eye contact so that I know they are with me, so to speak, but staring into eyes is freaky imo.

HelensMelons Sun 02-Nov-08 12:08:34


Checking out a book called The Handbook of Communication Skills, it's by a guy called Owen Hargie.

He talks about 'interpretive listening' or 'vocalic decoding' in other words "the processing of (as he says) emotional or affective content from a message" (pg 275). He actually says that "more than half the time people misinterpret vocalic signals" but that the accuracy is increased when also picking up on visual cues. He indicates that visual cues are more accurately perceived than vocal ones.

So, I suppose, the visual cues - or looking into someone's eyes backs up the verbal message.

Is it possible, then that the 'vocalic decoding' is more sensitive in someone who is blind?

It's only one source but quite interesting.

amber32002 Sun 02-Nov-08 12:36:19

HelensMelons, not sure. Can't hear tone of voice either blush. They do say that people who are blind have other senses that seem to get better so that they can compensate, yes. All my compensation happens after the event, when I can re-run what happened like a video-clip in my mind and think "Why would (Fred) have said those words in that sequence?" My ability to do this over and over again to find out the likely answer means that at least I can ask afterwards, "Were you cross with me?"

The Desmond Morris book on 'Manwatching' has four pages of text on eye contact. Here's a paragraph...

"Watch the eyes of any two people engrossed in conversation, and you will observe a highly characteristic 'dance' of gaze shifts. The speaker starts his statement with a glance at his companion. Then, as he gains momentum of thought and word, he looks away. As he is coming to the end of his comment, he glances back again to check to check the impact of what he has said. While he has been doing this, his companion has been watching him, but now as the listener takes over the talk and becomes the speaker, he, in turn, looks away,glances back only to check the effect of his words". long to look for, what on earth to search for in a face, how to interpret what you see...those are all mysteries to anyone who cannot see in the same way you do.

Suppose we hold the gaze too long, which someone would think was a threat or a sexual signal? Suppose we hold the gaze for too short a time, and insult the person? Suppose we look when we should be looking away, or vice-versa, thus confusing the person we're speaking to who'll wonder why we want to interrupt when we don't? It's a minefield! (to quote an understandable expression).

HelensMelons Sun 02-Nov-08 12:55:17

It sounds like more than a minefield!

If it's any consolation, I very often replay conversations over because I have missed the meaning or signficance, and, if necessary, re-visit that with the person, if I can.

However, I suppose, it goes back to what you said about finding ways around it that work (at least most of the time anyway. I am a great one for nodding my head!

ALMummy Sun 02-Nov-08 15:46:12

I do sometimes wonder if I am on the spectrum for various reasons. I have to concentrate very hard on the eye contact thing, firstly making it happen, secondly knowing when to look away and back again. Sometimes I am concentrating so hard on maintaining "normal" eye contact I lose all enjoyment in the conversation and just want it to end. I would much prefer to be able to talk to people without looking into their eyes. So I understand where my DS is coming from in regards to this, he is HFA.

Acinonyx Sun 02-Nov-08 17:34:07

This website for The Autism Research Centre might have some things of interst to you:

allytjd Sun 02-Nov-08 19:33:08

helen'smelons, thats interesting what you say about the visual backing up the verbal; I'm very short -sighted and if I ever venture out without my specs on (ie. this week i helped DS2 in the pool during his swimming lesson) it is almost as if i have gone a bit deaf, i miss so much from not seeing the other person's face and I suppose i must lipread a bit subconsiously too. I wonder if kids with ASD miss out on subtle differences in sounds without the visual backup of watching mouths move (as well as the clues to meaning from facial expressions obviously).

Troutpout Sun 02-Nov-08 20:10:41

Actually we were told recently when ds got his dx not to try to get him to hold eye contact. We already knew that as soon as teachers tried to make him do it at school he glazed over and couldn't listen.
When he makes prolonged eye contact's so odd and a little disconcerting tbh...It just looks like his eyes are empty.There are no flickers in response to the conversation. If he looks away and chats..he becomes all animated again.
He's better with me...used to my face the most i guess and i can actually 'direct' him with my eyes iykwim..and he's good with his sister...but pretty awful with everyone else.

mabanana Sun 02-Nov-08 20:25:09

I always post this but I'll post it again as it is interesting. Eye contact is not instinctive but cultural. In many cultures (eg Japan) eye contact is considered rude and intrusive, and a child is likely to be considered not to be listening or to be aggressive if they look into an adult's eyes when being instructed or told off. It is the exact opposite of the position here.
And Japanese people in tests are every bit as able to judge other's thoughts and feelings from their expressions. Expressions are much more than eyes - your mouth, cheeks, eyebrows all play a vital part in showing emotion.
Many people simply cannot process information well or listen well while maintaining eye contact. I find it hard.
And I think that radio drama can be every bit as expressive as TV drama.
WIth my son with AS, I just prompt him to make verbal responses to conversation and questions, and to look in the ^direction* of the person talking. I don't ask him to make eye contact.

Acinonyx Sun 02-Nov-08 21:42:30

That's interesting. Do you happen to have any references or sources on that mabanana?

mabanana Sun 02-Nov-08 22:21:18

I was listening to a fascinating programme on radio 4 where they were talking about this and I went on to do a bit more research myself. I'm so sorry but can't remember which show. Maybe try searching the bbc site? I think Prof Baron Cohen was on it.

Acinonyx Sun 02-Nov-08 22:39:47

It's Baron-Cohen's tests that I am using, including the one on reading people's eyes. The use of eye contact may vary culturally, but the test has been used on other cultures including remote tribes people - so the way the eyes are read/interpreted appears to be stable.

mabanana Sun 02-Nov-08 23:09:42

some interesting stuff here about cultural differences

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