Monday, March 18, 2013

What's The Deal With Eye Contact?

by Bec Oakley, author of

A reluctance to make eye contact is one of the most recognized features of autism, and yet it’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood.

What is eye contact?
There’s so much more to eye contact than just looking at someone’s eyes.

Besides being tools for basic survival, our faces are designed for reciprocal communication - for both giving and receiving information so that we can share in a mutually understood message with others. Eye contact helps us to do that in a number of different ways, like monitoring the interest and reaction of the other person when we speak and letting them know that we’re paying attention when it’s our turn to listen.

Contrary to popular belief, a lack of eye contact isn’t actually a requirement for the diagnosis of autism. What the DSM does say is that eye-to-eye-gaze can be just one of the areas in which there’s an impairment in the way nonverbal behaviours are used in social interaction, along with other things like body language and facial expressions.
So it’s not just about whether eye contact is being made, but how it’s being used - knowing when and how to initiate it, how long to maintain it, when and how to disengage, understanding the social rules that govern all of these and then using that knowledge to control social interactions. In other words, an overly intense and unrelenting gaze is just as significant as no eye contact at all, and being able to use eye contact doesn’t mean that a person isn’t autistic.
That being said, many autistic people do find eye contact to be challenging or uncomfortable, with some even describing it as excruciating.
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