“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
~ Neil Gaiman
“Pay attention!” my mom would command, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
And then I’d wonder to myself, (Which? Pay attention to what she was saying, or look at her eyes when she was talking to me?)
Eye contact among autistics is a funny thing; some can do it easily, some situationally, some rarely, a few never at all. Interestingly, how well someone can make eye contact has no bearing as an indicator on how well one can socialize, the verbal-communicative abilities or other-communicative abilities, intelligence, sensory sensitivities, or any number of other traits sometimes associated with autism. (I also work with children with other developmental disabilities who can make excellent eye contact, but have great difficulty with verbal communication and other kinds of social interactions.)
Eye contact is also a cultural thing, as such is considered to be rude in other parts of the world, meaning that gaze aversion is not necessarily a problem elsewhere.
So basically, one’s ability to make eye contact when interacting with people doesn’t mean squat in regards to other abilities. It just means that making eye contact can be difficult.
Personally, it’s something I have to make a conscious effort to do in job interviews, doing public speaking, and in some conversations. This conscious process distracts from other mental efforts, such as the extra work required by my Auditory Processing Disorder, and making the eye contact is also distracting in itself because it detracts from my ability to retrieve and process information needed for the conversation. Some of my perceived “making eye contact” is really just me doing a little lip-reading when there’s background noise getting in the way of auditory filtering and decoding.
And yet, in this part of the world the eye contact issue is a big deal for some people, or so you’d believe from reading various kinds of autism resources. People spend great amounts of time ensuring that their autistic children learn to do this when they are expected to do so.
Like teaching a Deaf child to lipread and use speech, some kinds of social training are emulator processes. The perceived improvements in communication can be deceiving because the Deaf person is not necessarily getting the same quality level of communication from the process, and is working many more times harder than anyone else to get what they do.
Recent research by Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and others at Stirling University has shown that gaze aversion reduces the cognitive load (amount of mental processing required), thus enabling both adults and children to better recall information and to better formulate responses. Requiring eye contact actually reduces the factual quality and the verbal complexity of responses.
So when we teach and require eye contact, what we must ask is, Who really benefits from this? Does it help the autistic? Or does it mostly just make the neurotypicals (NTs) feel more comfortable? Is the autistic really getting the same results (of being able to discern the non-verbal communication), or are they just going through the motions?
This is important – it’s not just window dressing designed to put others at ease – if the autistic person merely appears to be conversing typically, then the NT half of the dialog assumes that the rest of the communication is also happening. And of course, when something isn’t perceived by the autistic, the NT is frustrated and may erroneously attribute rudeness or lack of caring. And/or, the NT is confused because the non-verbal signals the autistic is giving off don’t jibe with what is “supposed” to be going on.
In any regard, if one is not getting the real or perceived benefits, then it’s just play-acting. It’s an elaborate social lie and a misrepresentation, and ultimately benefits no one. Furthermore, trying to stamp out gaze aversion makes various kind of mental processing more difficult, and for crying out loud, no one needs more mentally-taxing work!
Parents, therapists, educators and clinicians are focusing on the wrong thing (pardon the pun). Eye contact or gaze aversion is merely a sidetrack issue. What people are really concerned about is whether or not the individual of concern (child or adult) is truly engaged in the communication process. Is there mutual participation, comprehension, and the ability to share understanding and information? These are the real concerns that we need to be looking at.