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Aspergers and Eye Contact

Posted Oct 07 2007 12:00am
There's a lot in the literature about gaze-avoidance or lack of eye contact in Asperger's kids (and adults) but not really a lot from an Asperger's point of view.

What Practitioners and Parents Think
Frequently, it's left up to the reader's imagination to think of reasons - perhaps the child has just not learned that making eye contact is an essential part of spoken communication? Of course, this theory assumes that the condition is eventually treatable by training. It's consistent with the notion that eye contact does improve as the subject gets older but it's from a medical or educational point of view instead of coming from an Aspie.

[btw: apologies for my use of the term aspie - I'll use it through this blog in a familiar sense because it's difficult to keep writing Asperger's Syndrome. It is not intended to be derogatory in any way.]

An Aspie Point of View
Eye contact hurts.. no, not in the painful sense but it's quite uncomfortable. I always feel that I'm revealing more than I want to with eye contact and that I'm receiving more information than I want to know. Of course, I know that eye contact is critical to spoken communication, so often I'll compromise by either of two methods;

Method 1: Making brief eye contact every few seconds.
This is the "roving eye" technique whereby you make eye contact at the very start of each sentence and then drift away as soon as the person you're talking to is reassured that you're listening. There are a few problems with this method.

First of all, people often assume that your concentration is wandering. I'll often get told, "well, I know you're quite busy..." or "I'm probably boring you..." or "I can tell you're not interested..." as a response to using this technique when I really am interested in the conversation. When that happens, I usually have to switch to the other technique.

Method 2: Making eye contact for half of the Conversation
A two-way conversation is made up of two halves. Person 1 speaking while Person 2 listens and vice versa. As a general rule, people like to know that they're being listened to but aren't as worried if you don't make a lot of eye contact while you're talking. The plan with this method is to make reasonably constant eye contact (though you'll probably need to "flit" your eyes away several times during longer diatribes to ease the tension) while they talk to you and rest your eyes while you talk back.

As a partially deaf person I was encouraged to look at lips and I've become quite good at lip-reading. Unfortunately, as an adult, the lips are just too close to breasts and I often find that my female subjects will try to cover themselves during conversations. This is as embarrassing for me as it is for them.

I guess the best rule is to either stare at the face or (cheeks are a good idea) or slightly above and/or to the left or right of their head - never downwards or they'll assume the worst.

Overall, this is a more effective method than the "roving-eye" method but it doesn't work with everybody. In particular, you need to watch out for people who start turning around mid-conversation to see what you're staring at. If this happens, you need to either make more regular eye contact or switch to the other method.

One way of overcoming uncomfortable situations is to be seated at a desk and work during the conversation. I know that this is rude, but if you're doing related work or even turning to take the occasional note on a computer, it can give you a welcome break.

My background is in computers, so I use this to great advantage, often changing screens or adjusting code as the changes are discussed. This gives the impression that I'm just "raring to go" or that I'm prototyping systems (providing examples) to help the conversation, rather than just being rude.

What can parents do to help their children with Aspergers?

  • Place less emphasis on eye contact and more on "participation in conversation".

  • Explain how some people need to see you looking in their direction before they think you're listening.

  • Give your children a few options for controlling gaze avoidance (suggest looking at cheeks) or higher.

  • Encourage "looking at my face" but don't push it - it's really uncomfortable for us.

  • Be understanding when we don't feel like looking - we're not being rude, just feeling insecure.

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