Eye contact: is it important?

by Debra Muzikar

“Kevin will use age-appropriate eye contact in (3 out of 4) verbal interactions with adults or peers in 4 trials as measured by observation and trial.”

Many parents see goals such as this on their child’s IEP’s or therapy plans. In fact, when I researched this blog I visited IEP websites and they include the above as a standard goal for Autistic students.

Eye contact seems to present difficulty for many.

John Elder Robison’s first book about growing up Aspergers is aptly named “Look me in the Eye.”


Why do some Autistic individuals have trouble with eye contact? And should improved eye contact be a goal? I decided to ask my Facebook friends what they thought and as usual the responses were intelligent and thought-provoking.

I received many responses from Autistic and neurotypical (NT) individuals who said they had problems looking people in the eyes. I also received input from parents, educators, and therapists.

There is a cultural belief that direct eye contact means a person is honest, attentive, and has nothing to hide. People who are dishonest are said to have “shifty eyes.”

Maria Hall, parent, believes learning eye contact is important. “People tend to think you are lying if you won’t look at them. Although for girls men tend to think you are coming onto them if you maintain eye contact.”

“Eye contact is taken for granted in our culture and those of us who don’t do it consistently are seen as suspicious, rude, or unfriendly,” Lisa DeSherlia states.

It goes beyond that. People who don’t look at someone in the eyes are said to lack empathy.

“It delays the most — delays or impairs for life — the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each other’s eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them. That is denied — largely denied — to children with autism,” Robert MacNeil. (from the six-part PBS TV series Autism Now).

Ed Ised responds, “Mr. MacNeil is suggesting that eye-contact is the only way humans connect and without this, they’re unable to understand what another is feeling or appreciate it. This ranks us (us meaning autistics) at the level of an animal which the dominant culture is more likely to receive justification for mistreating. By promoting this myth, he’s encouraging parents to seek therapy, which may very well cross what would otherwise be a boundary and the abuse of a therapist will seem necessary.”

Is looking at someone in the eyes culturally-biased?

“I am a Native American and in my culture it is disrespectful for a young person to make eye contact with anyone older than them. The pressure to make eye contact is a cultural prejudice and an unnecessary pressure to place on an autistic child,” Eddie Grim states.

Marilyn Lauer, special educator, “I have known people from other cultures around the world where eye contact is a sign of disrespect. I have taught many of my students with autism that they can ‘check in with their eyes’ or with their heads (nod) or with their voice (say ‘uh huh’) so that I know they are listening. ‘Look at me’ – I am over that phrase.”

Jeanette Purkis, states “Indigenous Australian cultures usually consider eye contact rude and invasive. There is a lot of cultural loading around making eye contact. It always annoys me when people say it’s a basic human thing that we are all supposed to do, because it isn’t.”

Noah Erenberg "Art Eye" Courtesy of http://www.thegoodluckgallery.com/artists/noah-erenberg/
Noah Erenberg “Art Eye” Courtesy of the Good Luck Gallery www.thegoodluckgallery.com/artists/noah-erenberg/

Do social norms hurt the Autistic population. Are the rules made by Neurotypicals (NTs) who may not be empathetic to people who are wired differently?

Gee Vero, “I think that eye contact is something that non-autistics are so accustomed to that it makes them feel uncomfortable if it´s not there.”

“Demanding that a kid on the spectrum make eye contact has more to do with making the speaker feel heard; it shows no understanding of the experience of the Asperkid himself. Folks on the spectrum often need to tune the ‘volume’ on one sense ‘down’ in order to give another sense more focus – so often, we are doing our best listening if we’re NOT looking someone in the eye.” Jennifer O’Toole from her blog “I can’t see it’s too loud.”

Joanne Secky, “I have explained to my son that it is a ‘fake it to you make it thing’ that some people are looking for – job interview etc… It’s one of many things that neurotypicals are making a judgement about – so I just put on his radar and let it go. Then I don’t feel like it’s assimilation but information that is more like a tool than a have to. Buddhist concept of learn the rules so you know how to break them.”

CarolAnn Edscorn, MS, says eye contact makes normal people feel safe. “My husband is a special education teacher, upper elementary grades. He did [an exercise] having the students make QUICK eye contact and say ‘HI.’ When they asked him ‘WHY?’ he responded : ‘It makes normal people feel safe. Normal people need to feel safe.'”

Judy Endow "Look Me in the Eye" Courtesy of www.judyendow.com
Judy Endow “Look Me in the Eye” Courtesy of www.judyendow.com

Some parents and educators say that if a child isn’t looking at them they don’t know if they are attending the task.

“There are a bajillion ways to demonstrate one is paying attention and is focused without making eye contact. Studies indicate the majority of auties have extreme peripheral vision. Sailors and shepherds also have this trait. It is only socially appropriate in western Cultures. In many other cultures it is rude and in some it is considered aggressive behaviors,” says CarolAnn Edscorn.

Autistic people often have unusually developed peripheral vision.

I recall a parent telling me of her Autistic child walking through a museum looking straight ahead, not at any piece of art directly, and being able to replicate the art she passed with an uncanny precision.

Too much sensory input makes eye contact difficult for many, and sometimes even painful

“Eye contact has been a problem throughout my life. My best thought about it is you can have my attention or you can have my eye contact, you cannot have both. If I am looking at you I am noticing things about your face and that is where my attention is focused, I am not listening to a word you are saying. Conversely if I am paying attention to what you are saying my eyes may be closed,” Ken Bzrezinksi, Special Educator.

Dave Scott, “I turn my head to listen as I can’t filter sound.”

Carol Ann Edscorn, “I know many Aspies besides myself who get totally confused by the phrase “LOOK AT ME WHEN I AM TALKING TO YOU.” I hear with my ears. Force me to look at you and it is “shiny squirrel” season for your FACE…go freckles? A zit? Hairy nose? Bald? ALL THOSE ARE DISTRACTIONS against listening and hearing.”

April Dawn Griffin, “Eye contact is not natural for me. I became aware of the need for it at age 19 after reading a story about how to use it in Cosmo magazine. I quickly discovered if I did it people would talk to me. I am more likely to make eye contact with people closest to me. I will also remind myself to do it to show I am paying attention but I find it easier to pay attention if I am looking away and usually down so I can focus on the words.”

April Dawn Griffin "Untitled"
April Dawn Griffin “Untitled”

Jeremy, like many, can process only one sensory system at a time. So if he is looking at your face and trying to visually process; then he can’t auditorily process what you are saying – so he looks away so he can ‘hear’ you,” Chantal Sicile Kira, Parent.

“My autistic child even puts dishcloths over the rabbit’s cage and turns over magazines to avoid faces – why insist on causing anxiety?” One parent writes. (See the research at the end of the article about eye contact and anxiety).

Eye contact helps you read people

Sarah Vaughn, “No way can I make eye contact when someone is giving directions or explaining something complicated. It’s just too much to focus on and my brain turns to mush. On the other hand, I can usually handle casual conversation fairly well while making eye contact (it has not always been so, however). If…IF… you can learn to do this, it can help you to be able to ‘read’ people. Not everyone can, and there is no shame in that.”

Does lack of eye contact present safety concerns or limit the person?

Nick Roen, parent writes, “I do think it’s important to have as a goal. Because my son wasn’t looking at his coach soccer coach in the eye when talking to him. The coach pushed him. Police officers and such react the same way, they take it personal if someone isn’t responding. I think it’s important for safety and social interaction. But I personally listen better if I’m not looking at something, I’m an audible learner (I guess this is not common). The visual stuff distracts me from the information.”

Joanne Lara of Autism Movement Therapy writes, “limited eye contact limits the individuals chances of employment and community acceptance – as do other cultural taboos such as being morbidly overweight. I believe that everything we can do to bring our kids into the fold ultimately serves them. Should society accept people who can’t look you in the eye when you are communicating? Certainly, yes. But do they? Not often. So taking the stand, from where we are right now in social mores, I say it is more effective to teach the brain to tolerate the variables in the environment (which we can do) so that the individual can benefit.”

Eyes are said to be the windows of the soul. Some are uncomfortable with what they see. Maybe they don’t lack empathy at all but are acutely sensitive.

Finn Christie, second grade, “I saw sad and dark in her eyes. That’s why I couldn’t look at her,” speaking of his teacher.

Carol Ann Edscorn, “Our wounds and hurts and fears are in our eyes. Humans think they build ‘walls’ for internal privacy. They think eye contact is about honesty but they mostly lie because they think they can hide their intent. Eye contact is invasive.”

April Dawn Griffin, “When I look in people’s eyes it is an intense experience and I find it hard to focus on their words. A romantic way to put it is the eyes are the windows into the soul and I can’t focus on your words when I am seeing into them.”

Gee Vero, “.. for me establishing eye contact is so much more than seeing the persons eyes, I really see who they are, I sense more than I see, and what I see is most of the time not pretty. It is difficult to explain but for me eye contact is more than being polite or socially adequate. For me it is about real trust and opening up and I just cannot do it with people who are not honest or who hide behind masks and show me a wrong face, like a smile when I can sense that they are not smiling at all.”

Does looking in the eye mean you are attentive?

“In my humble opinion, I would rather someone listen even if they are looking elsewhere than stare into my eyes and blatantly not hear a word,” Linda Westover Senula, occupational therapist

Susan Osborne ” Eye contact is only meaningful with context. It’s just staring into someone’s eyes without it.”

Some have the opposite problem with staring.

Maranda Russell, ” I have a hard time finding a balance between not enough eye contact and too much. I either don’t look in your eyes at all or I tend to stare too intensely. I try to remind myself to make eye contact but look away every little bit, but it is hard to do that and listen to the conversation well.”

Natalie Totire, “I had the opposite problem growing up. People always complained that I stared at them. Later on I found out it is because it takes me twice as long to remember and process faces than the average person. So it took a while for to drop the habit of staring, replaced by making sure to either have a conversation, make a sketch, or take a photo to stare at and pray for later.”

For some it’s easier to look directly at animals than people.

James McCue, “I think I get too distracted by eye contact – I do it, but it is easier to look away from whomever I am talking to. Animals, though – I feel like they are asking for an acknowledgement that I am not a danger to them.”

Courtesy of James McCue
Courtesy of James McCue

Tracy de Soto, psychotherapist and Aspie, writes, “Humans are animals and might very well have this need for reassurance in common with the ‘lower’ animals, hence the desire to be able to look one’s conversation partner in the eyes and ‘know’ them through that sense. I think that for neurotypicals, it’s comfortable to use all their senses fairly equally, either concurrently or in very rapid succession, and to have one way of ‘sensing’ another person be cut off to them is confusing and might even evoke fears about connection and safety being compromised.”

Strategies: Look at another part of the face, wear sunglasses, inform others.

Lori Shayew, parent empowerment coach, “I don’t look at people in the eyes…but they don’t know it.”

Charlynn Schnebelen, “Eye contact is socially appropriate yet for our kiddos it is socially uncomfortable. My daughter has been taught to look at the other persons forehead, shoulder, ear or anywhere around the face of the person. We have found this works perfect for her. She does not go on sensory overload.”

Jennifer O’Toole, “For social acceptance’s sake, teach your Asperkid to look at the spot on the bridge on the nose between the eyes…”

Jane Strauss, “…I look at noses, foreheads, or lips.”

“I was blessed in theater to learn to look at foreheads, cheeks, top of head, etc. especially when looking out at audience,” CarolAnn Edscorn.

Tracy de Soto disagrees with looking at the nose or forehead. “While I respect that this is more comfortable for some Aspies, I have to disagree with the assessment that ‘no one notices.’ I’m Aspie and I have my idiosyncrasies, but I notice every time someone does that when we’re conversing, and it’s disconcerting and distracting…but I never comment on it because it’s socially unacceptable to comment on that, not because I can’t see it. So be careful with your conclusions–the premise that ‘no one notices’ is based on an assumption, and not necessarily on conclusive proof.”

Ben Wollons, “I generally wear sunglasses all the time when I am out so that people do not see that I am not looking at them if I am talking to them. I generally “zone out” with my eyes when I am talking because I am trying to focus on what I am saying and correctly getting it out. For me, eye contact is hard to describe…it is highly uncomfortable, it feels icky when everyone is looking at me and even though I am 34 I still struggle with looking into other people’s eyes.”

“When I am in meetings, now, I make this general announcement to the group: ‘I can better understand what’s being said if I close my eyes — please don’t think I’m ignoring you or falling asleep.’ That, to me, is an appropriate behavior adaptation that behaviorists can teach,” Cathy Burns, parent, whose recent brain hemorrhage has left her with a more concrete mind. She goes on to say, ” the classic behaviorists do force a lot of unnecessary and even abusive behavior changes — and counter-productive! A quick glance over the facial area would serve the purpose of making most NTs feel safe and happy — which is important, when out in the general public and dealing with police, etc.”

Are higher expectations expected of Autistic individuals than others?

Gee Vero hypothesizes, “my response to people who complain about no or little eye contact with autistic people is that if we were in a wheel chair no one would even think about getting upset about us not getting up when greeting one another…or the blind. do they get told off for not looking? No they don´t. Autism seems to be the least respected of all the ways of being different. Why? Maybe because autistic people remind non-autistic people of who they really are and we force them to look at themselves in the mirror.”

Is expecting eye contact a thing of the past?

Kelly Green, parent, “Forcing someone to give/learn eye contact should become a thing of the past. I would much rather interact with someone that is comfortable; physically and emotionally. Who cares if they look into my eyes? When we demand others interact with us by societies out-dated and clichéd standards we place them in an anxious state unnecessarily. Out with the old way and in with the Autistic way…”


Thanks Jane Strauss and CarolAnn Edscorn

Eye Contact Triggers Threats in Autistic People’s Brains

The Human Amygdala plays an important role in gaze monitoring

The amygdala, autism and anxiety

Peripheral perception in autism: What is more important eye contact or understanding?

Perceptual Characteristics of Peripheral Vision in children with autism

Gaze Aversion a Cognitive Load Management Strategy in Autism and William’s Syndrome

5 replies on “Eye contact: is it important?”
  1. says: Robert Miles

    For me, the main problem is that the transfer from my short-term memory to my long-term memory is slower than usual. Therefore, looking them in the eyes while they are talking to me only adds the flow of information that often is already too fast to remember longer than one minute.

  2. says: Robert Miles

    As for looking animals in the eyes, don’t try it with gorillas. They treat it as a challenge to fight.

  3. says: massive fluffiness

    Cats find eye contact to be a predatory challenge, I’ve read. You must slowly blink at them several times to show you trust them to see you while you don’t see them. Then look away to avoid challenging them. This is how I befriended a terror of claws and teeth up the street. Now he wants pets and to rub his face all over my leg. He still attacks his owner, but then, she never did take any of my cat-hacking advice and treats him like a furry human baby.

    Now looking at humans in the eye, that is something I can only do if I shut off my emotions and mentally disconnect from my body, where anxiety will be rushing into my muscles. Or I can block out what you’re saying, as my thoughts will be focused on all of the emotions and messages your eyes are sending–many of which, I believe, NT people do not perceive. I can look you in the eyes and read the history of your emotions and read how what you’re actively trying to show me conflicts with your true emotions. I used to think I had a hard time identifying feelings on people, but after much effort, I’ve realized that I was picking up the interference from repressed emotions bleeding into the mask that people contrive to show you. I can see that your smile is fake and your sorrow is an act. I can tell you’re bored, hurt, insecure, relaxed, attracted to me, etc. I think it’s funny that NT’s believe they’re really hiding all of this emotional information. They should wear sunglasses!

  4. says: KL

    Your article is thought provoking, as it reveal perspective of individuals with ASD, especially how stressful one may feel when looking at the eyes of others. However, when people talk about eye contact, we are not only talk about presenting your attentiveness, or a culturally need for straight forward looking eye. Eye contact, is a way for infant and grown-up to show their interest to others. Moving the eye sight from the preferred toys and to then looking for the response of the carer, what most specail education teacher/ therapist would term it as “joint attention”, it is more important.

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