The Integrative Approach to Autism part 10: Eye Contact

Feb 06 2013

This post continues THE 3-STEP Integrative Approach to Autism series, developed over 18 years of research, experience and collaboration. Today Part 10: BEHAVIORAL requirements for growth: Eye Contact

Making eye contact:

What is so difficult about making eye contact that many sensitive people have a problem with it? It is a fair question by someone who has not experienced real depression or is not often overwhelmed by surrounding events. People who have experienced depression will tell you that making eye contact is too emotionally demanding. During overwhelming moments, many sensitive people prefer to avoid eye contact for the purpose of being able to evenly carry a conversation. When a sensitive person is over-stimulated, he or she prefers to retract to a more comfortable zone in order to ease the burden and maintain some sort of stability. The safety zone for someone who has difficulty connecting with others is usually within themselves. A person failing to make eye contact when meeting someone is trying to avoid further sensory overload. It takes a lot to figure out facial expressions and body language. It is too taxing emotionally, and sensitive people learn to avoid it when the input exceeds their ability to process it.

Well-intentioned professionals are teaching parents to force their children to make eye contact by withholding attention or basic needs until the child makes contact. This is plain ignorance and makes mothers a source of danger when they are supposed to be an absolute source of comfort and safety to a struggling child. Giving someone an order to increase their social intelligence quotient by ten points just because “you said so” is not going to cut it with sensitive children. They are not making eye contact because they have unmet emotional needs. These emotional needs have to be attended to first, and then they will make eye contact naturally. Forcing eye contact is only going to stress your child even more. The solution in my opinion is to suggest eye contact to the child only during relaxing cozy times when it may be an easier thing for the child to achieve.

Some children learn that to avoid adversity they have to maintain eye contact at all times despite their best judgment. They end up literally maintaining eye contact. If they have to look into someone else’s eyes, then they will look only at the eyes and ignore the rest of the face and body. This piercing eye contact can be uncomfortable to the recipient and even scary if they have not seen it before. As you can see, treating the symptom by giving a command is medieval at best. We have to be open to examining the signs our children are giving us. We have to understand the signs and to act intelligently upon them. These non-verbal signs are very tricky and we will make many mistakes deciphering the signs a little boy who cannot express himself is giving. Learning from these mistakes will bring you closer to your child and will aid in their improvement. We have to do this or we lose out on this new frontier. The price we pay is sending drones of otherwise bright, lively and promising children into oblivion. One dad once told me that he used to see such a spark in his son’s eyes. He said one day he could not see the spark anymore and it has been a source of distress and guilt for him ever since. The poor guy is fighting an uphill battle using all the “recommended tools” and not getting anywhere with his boy.

Nothing in the world replaces loving hand-holding through scary experiences. Many eager professionals teach techniques, which force children out of their comfort zone. One common example is forcing a sensitive child to make eye contact when he or she feels overwhelmed. The reason a person does not make eye contact is they feel too stimulated and overloaded. Forcing them to make eye contact creates a higher level of over-stimulation, which eventually leads to greater aversion to eye contact. A wise parent chooses the moments to trick the child into making eye contact. This typically has to be done while the parent is with the child in a low stress environment, preferably in the child’s room and while the parent is being affectionate to the child. This is one example of trying to bring children out of their inner world and into our world by loving them and choosing a comfortable, low-stimulation time to entice them out of their shell. It is not entertainment. It is loving, gradual, repetitive exposure.

Note: Rest assured there is nothing wrong, medically, with a sensitive child’s vision. Good scientists have examined the eyes of many sensitive and autistic children and found nothing wrong per se with their eyes or neural pathways connecting the eyes to the interpretation centers in the brain. The evidence is included in this chapter’s references section.

Rami Serhan, MD
Author, Psyche-Smart Autism; Integrative Medicine Consultant
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