5 Differences of Eye Contact in Autism

Eye contact in autism

How to improve eye contact in autism?

In human interaction, there are moments when words are unnecessary, and just a glance can convey a message, emotion, or feeling. Visual contact plays a crucial role in the dynamics of communication, transcending language barriers and cultural differences. However, eye contact in autism presents a different context.

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face unique challenges, ranging from navigating communication barriers to addressing challenging behaviors. Among these unique characteristics, eye contact in autism stands out, as individuals with ASD experience emotional reactions and sensory overload when maintaining visual contact. Additionally, they encounter difficulties in understanding social cues in non-verbal communication.

At ABA Centers of Virginia, we strive to ensure that the entire community in Arlington, Washington D.C., and surrounding areas understand the unique traits present in the spectrum. So, if you are a parent or caregiver of a child on the spectrum, you might be pondering the question, “How to improve eye contact in autism?” In this blog, we will delve into the understanding of eye contact and explore interventions that can be beneficial.

The Importance of Eye Contact

Visual contact is a cornerstone of human interaction, a non-verbal communication that transports emotions, intentions, and connection. In typical social interactions, people instinctively use eye contact to establish affinity, convey empathy, and build relationships.

Beyond the spoken words, our eyes express sincerity, interest, and confidence, fostering trust and credibility. In social interactions, maintaining eye contact is often perceived as a sign of respect and active engagement. It’s a silent language that communicates attentiveness and a shared moment, enhancing the overall quality of communication.

The study “What Makes Eye Contact Special? indicates that recurrent interaction through eye contact activates the limbic mirror system, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insular cortex (AIC). These areas are critical for empathy and social cognition, highlighting the importance of eye contact in understanding and relating to other’s emotions and thoughts.

5 Differences in Eye Contact Among Individuals with Autism

In the context of autism, eye contact does not carry the same significance or weight in social interaction as it does for individuals without this condition. In fact, the lack of visual contact is a criterion for diagnosing autism. Let’s explore the five main differences:

  1. Sensory Sensitivity: Many individuals with autism may experience heightened sensory sensitivity. This impact means that visual stimuli, such as bright light or intense eye contact, can be overwhelming or uncomfortable. In response to this sensitivity, some individuals with autism may avoid eye contact to reduce sensory overload and feel more at ease in their environment.
  2. Social Coordination Challenges: Eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication that requires specific social skills, such as gaze coordination, interpretation of facial expressions, and understanding of social norms. Individuals with autism often face challenges in these areas, leading to a lower frequency or duration of eye contact.
  3. Focus on Specific Interests: Individuals on the autism spectrum often develop particular and focused interests. In certain situations, their attention may be strongly directed toward these specific interests, making it more challenging for them to maintain eye contact with others.
  4. Alternative Nonverbal Communication: It’s crucial to recognize that eye contact is not the sole form of nonverbal communication. Some individuals with autism may resort to other means of expression, such as gestures, body language, or indirect visual communication, to convey their emotions or intentions.
  5. Individual Variability: Every person on the autism spectrum is unique, and differences in eye contact can vary significantly from one person to another. Some individuals may regularly establish eye contact, while others may feel more comfortable avoiding it in specific situations.

 Findings About Eye Contact in Autism

As a common symptom of autism, researchers have studied eye contact to explain why it happens, how people with ASD experience it, and to provide new avenues of insight into this behavior.

The study “Neural Correlates of Eye Contact and Social Function in Autism Spectrum Disorder used neuroimaging, eye-tracking, and pupillometry data gathered to investigate eye contact in both typically developed individuals and those with ASD. The results revealed differences in the neural responses between the two groups during eye-to-eye contact. Participants showed decreased activation in the right superior temporal sulcus region, which is associated with social cognition. These findings suggest that the difficulties with eye contact observed in ASD suggest that there is a link between atypical activation in brain regions related to social cognition.

Moreover, the study by The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that children with ASD exhibited a distinct pattern of frontal EEG asymmetry in response to direct visual contact when compared to neurotypical children. This atypical neural processing of direct gaze might be contributing to the social communication challenges often observed in children on the spectrum.

Finally, a study by the National Library of Medicine indicates that individuals with ASD often described eye contact as an intense and overwhelming experience that could trigger feelings of discomfort or anxiety. Some participants also reported physical manifestations of this discomfort, such as increased heart rate or sweating. Additionally, many individuals with ASD noted that they had developed strategies to mimic or simulate eye contact in social situations to reduce discomfort and meet societal expectations.

Interventions and Therapies to Improve Eye Contact

Eye contact is a social skill that can be challenging for individuals with ASD. However, it is essential to address this issue from an approach that respects individuality and does not seek to change fundamental aspects of the person.

Among the therapies that can assist individuals with autism in improving eye contact and other challenging behaviors within the spectrum is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA therapy addresses various aspects of behavior, including social skills. ABA focuses on understanding and modifying behavior through observation and systematic analysis.

ABA therapy can aid with eye contact in autism in several ways:

  • It breaks down the skill into small steps to work on gradually
  • It uses positive reinforcements such as praise to motivate the desired behavior
  • Therapists incorporate visual aids and social supports to facilitate social situations

ABA Centers of Virginia and Autism Care Services

Effective communication is vital to building relationships, and eye contact is a fundamental aspect of it. However, it’s important to remember that individuals with autism may not feel at ease or might find eye contact challenging, and we must respect how they choose to communicate.

As parents or caregivers, it’s essential to respect and value individual needs and preferences rather than pursuing ‘typical’ behaviors as the ultimate goal. The focus should be on identifying any behaviors that might hinder the person’s ability to lead a fulfilling life.

ABA Centers of Virginia is here to help improve the well-being of your loved ones. Our ABA therapy approach aims to enhance social and communication skills and academic performance. To explore our services, call us at (855) 957-1892 or schedule an appointment with our autism care specialists. We’re committed to providing the support you need to ensure a better quality of life for your loved one.

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