What to Know About Autism and Eye Contact

by Pauline Campos Guest Contributor

A study published earlier this year reveals that people with autism spectrum disorder avoid eye contact because it causes anxiety rather than because they lack empathy. It’s a frustratingly common misconception, and as the mother of a child on the spectrum, I am glad to see it proven false. Read on to learn more about how this information can help parents of kids with autism, as well as adults on the spectrum, advocate for their needs.

Baby looking at mother.

It boils down to avoiding overstimulation

According to the report, scientists revealed the discovery of a part of the brain that helps newborn babies turn their head toward familiar faces. In autistic individuals, this part of the brain is abnormally activated and can lead to overstimulation. The findings suggest pushing autistic kids to look therapists in the eye during behavioral sessions could be “counterproductive” by increasing anxiety.

Mindblindness concept child behind frosted glass

Where did this misconception get its start?

So what sparked the idea that lack of eye contact indicates lack of empathy in those with autism? For this, we look directly at the infamous British psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith. The two coined the term “mindblindness” in the 1980’s to explain what they believed to be autism’s core deficit.

Parents with child at airport.

Science validates what parents have long known

Baron-Cohen and Frith’s “theory of mind” states that people with autism cannot imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. Many parents of kids on the spectrum will tell you their kids feel “too much,” leading to overstimulation, but it’s nice to have science backing us up now.

Girl hugging mother's leg.

What about missing social cues?

Researchers addressed concern about autistic individuals missing social cues as they avoid eye contact, saying that: “Somehow one has to help them to gather all these important cues.” They included suggestions such as “progressively habituating individuals with ASD to look into the eyes … and then in incentivizing them to look at the eyes, finding a way to make eye contact somehow less stressful.”

Mother playing with phone while baby watches.

Many smartphone and tablet apps focus on eye contact.

These findings could prove to be a game changer when it come to the countless apps that are built around making eye contact and other socially expected behaviors for children on the spectrum, such as Samsung’sLook at Me and Look in My Eyes: Steam Train. As researchers stated in the report, apps like these could actually increase anxiety in kids with ASD.

Friends, five kids from behind, arms around each others shoulders.

No real evidence for eye contact contributing to real-world adjustment

According to Dr. Susan Fletcher-Watson, who heads up the Development Autism Research Society, or DART, at the University of Edinburgh, there is no real evidence that improving eye contact leads to better friendships or adjustment into real world situations. Fletcher-Watson likened pushing ASD individuals to make eye contact to forcing a right-handed person to write with their left.

Boy sitting with his teddy bear.

Maybe it’s not autistic people who need to adapt

“If eye contact makes the neurotypical community feel more comfortable, maybe it is our responsibility instead to learn to adapt to the interactive style of autistic people. If we’re so ‘socially skilled,’ then why are we so bad at doing this?” Fetcher-Watson said in a blog on the DART site.

Baby slapping table with hands.

The history and meaning behind eye contact

In western societies, eye contact is associated with trust. Think of the bad guys in books and movies and their “shifty eyes.” History also credits the ability to make eye contact to our earliest survival instincts as a species. Babies and children who attracted attention through eye contact were more likely to be fed.

Two young girls hugging.

Perspective is everything

There are many differing cultural beliefs concerning eye contact. It is considered rude to make eye contact with strangers, elders, and people of the opposite sex in the Japanese and Navajo cultures, respectively. In western society, eye contact is associated with leadership and trustworthiness.

Mother working with child, trying to get even partial eye contact.

Helping our kids adapt means getting creative

The bottom line is that eye contact is important in our society, so parents of kids on the spectrum are getting creative to help their kids adapt.

Kara Tyler, a 39-year-old Baltimore resident, taught her autistic teen to feign eye contact by looking in between people’s eyebrows.

“People register it as eye contact and it doesn’t make them feel as on the spot,” Tyler said.

Bonus? This little trick doesn’t increase anxiety for her kid, either.

Pauline Campos
Meet Our Writer
Pauline Campos

Pauline Campos is a freelance writer, author, and & artist living in the Twin Cities. Her work - often focusing on reported features, mental health, autism awareness, and raising a daughter that will never doubt the power of her own voice - has appeared on The Scope, The Fix, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and many others. Follow Pauline on Twitter, Instagram @pauline_campos, and Facebook @paulinemcampos. You can also check out aspringmama.com, the blog she sometimes remembers to update.