Eye Contact: Looking Does Not Mean Listening

Reconsidering the necessity of eye contact in social interactions.

Eye contact has a very particular social role.  It is considered a sign of attentiveness, politeness and interest in what someone else is saying.  I notice examples of this all the time.  Visiting a classroom recently, the teacher encouraged the children to use their “looking eyes” to show they were listening.  A few weeks ago, on the sideline of a sports match, I watched a coach ask an errant player to “look at my eyes” while providing corrective feedback.  I have heard family members admonish their kids to “look at grandma” when speaking at family gatherings.  After all, it’s rude not to, right?

This is based on the belief that if a child makes eye contact, it means they are listening, polite, and respectful.  However, there is rising evidence that requiring eye contact for autistic people and other neurodivergent people is detrimental. Pushing back on the societal norms that require eye contact for communication and connection is crucial. We do not explicitly teach or require eye contact in our therapy at TMB.  Here’s why:

Sensory Differences:

Autistic children and adults often experience sensory sensitivities and differences, manifesting in various forms (Sensory Sensitivities, n.d.). Sensory sensitivities and differences may contribute to difficulties in processing and regulating emotions.  Many autistic people report that eye contact can overwhelm them, causing discomfort, anxiety, or sensory overload. 

Emotional Regulation:

Autistic individuals may struggle with emotional regulation due to difficulties processing and expressing emotions. Recent research suggests that eye contact avoidance may be a mechanism for reducing hyperarousal experienced by autistic people (Stuart et al., 2023) and is thus an effective emotional regulation strategy. Forcing eye contact in social situations, such as greetings (which might be stressful for an autistic person as it is), removes this regulation mechanism, further increasing anxiety levels.  

Diverse Communication Styles:

Autistic people demonstrate a diverse range of communication styles.  These vary both among groups of Autistic people as well as when we compare autistic and neurotypical people.  Rather than forcing one communication style as being the “correct” one, it is far more inclusive and supportive to embrace and encourage diversity.  Acknowledging that “looking” is not necessary for “listening” is also essential.  Many neurodivergent people report that it is easier to listen and to learn when they are not forced to look at the person they are listening to. 

Respect for Personal Boundaries:

Respecting personal boundaries is crucial for fostering inclusive and respectful interactions. Forcing autistic individuals to make eye contact disregards their autonomy and personal boundaries. Autistic self-advocates emphasise acknowledging and respecting individual preferences regarding social interactions, including eye contact.  Our role as parents, therapists and caregivers is to teach children that they have a right to exercise those personal boundaries.  Forcing or requiring eye contact sends the message that adults can disregard those boundaries.

What can we do instead?

All people value social interaction.  It brings joy and connectedness, no matter what neurotype you have.  It is essential to foster such interaction; however, we should not be so prescriptive about how these interactions occur.  Connected communication can occur without eye contact.  In many cases, connected communication is more possible without expecting eye contact. 

Of course, there are times when, as parents, teachers, coaches or caregivers, it is helpful to know that our children are listening.  A communication breakdown can occur if they do not respond when you speak to them. 

Use this as an opportunity to discuss why it is essential for you to know they are listening but support them in negotiating their boundaries.  Talk to your child about what their “listening bodies” look and feel like.  This will be different for everyone.  Together, they agree on a comfortable signal to show they are listening.  This could simply be pausing their activity, vocal acknowledgement, or orienting their body towards you. We can then use gentle reminders when initiating interactions.  We can say, “I can see that you are very focused on your Lego, but I have something important to tell you.  Can you show me you’re listening?”  These same signals can be encouraged in peer interactions and with teachers. 

Recognising and respecting the diverse ways people communicate is essential for fostering an inclusive society and genuine connection. 

References:

Sensory sensitivities: Autistic children and teenagers. (n.d.). Raising Children Network. Retrieved May 28, 2023, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/sensory-sensitivities-asd

Stuart, N., Whitehouse, A., Palermo, R., Bothe, E., & Badcock, N. (2023). Eye Gaze in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of Neural Evidence for the Eye Avoidance Hypothesis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 53(5), 1884–1905. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05443-z

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