Why Does Autism Affect Your Child’s Eye Contact?

Takeaway: There are psychological, social, sensory, and biochemical reasons why children with autism shy away from eye contact. So, it’s important to know which triggers to work on and how best to address them. Your best option? Find an autism specialist to help create a custom support plan for your child.

Autism has a set of telltale signs if you know what to look for.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental difference that gives children a set of predictable traits. And these traits are to do with social interactions, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours. Their brain differences make children with autism experience the world differently, but it changes their behaviour, too. So, you’ll see telltale signs like constantly organising and lining up their toys, watching the same shows on repeat, not wanting to hug or cuddle, not trying to communicate often, and more. Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.

A lack of eye contact is one of these foundational traits.

Most children instinctively recognise the importance of eye contact. They see it’s a way to read someone’s moods, connect with them, express interest, show respect, and more. But children with autism it becomes clear from as early as two months from birth that they are unable to maintain eye contact. One 2013 study used eye-tracking technology to record where babies focused their gaze. And the data showed that babies with autism spent more time focusing on their caregiver’s mouth or body as a whole, while babies without autism were drawn more to the eyes. This tendency is so widespread that not making eye contact is officially recognised as an early marker of autism. It’s not enough of a marker on its own – after all, shy children don’t like making eye contact either – but it’s definitely an important factor.

In fact, it’s more than just eye contact. Children with autism have a different gaze pattern from those without.

Autism affects a child’s gaze pattern as a whole, not just their eye contact. And you can explore this for yourself if your child is older than three months old. For instance, seat them in a high chair about a foot away from you and hold up two objects, one in each hand. The first is a colourful painting/photograph, and the other is an interesting object like an iPad. How many times does your baby shift their gaze between the image and the object? A typically-developing infant will shift four to eight times a minute, while a child with autism will shift less. For slightly older infants, you can try the smile test. Face your infant and alternate between a neutral face and a big smile – keeping the smile for about five seconds. If you do this four times in a row, how many times does your baby smile back at you? Children without autism usually smile back each time, while those with autism typically don’t.

So, why does autism cause this difference in gaze and eye contact? Well, there are psychological explanations, for starters.

Psychologists have a few theories about why children with autism don’t make eye contact. Some researchers say that eye contact makes the autistic brain anxious or threatened. (It’s called the gaze aversion theory). And they cite studies where brain scans show that eye contact over-excites certain parts of an autistic brain. But other researchers disagree, explaining that, in their studies, autistic brains are underactive when eye contact is made. So, children with autism ignore eye contact because it’s not engaging in the way it is for their classmates. (This is called the gaze indifference theory.) However, we can combine both these stands by saying that younger children with autism have gaze indifference that becomes gaze aversion as they grow older. This explains why babies can’t maintain eye contact, while older children and adults actively avoid it.

There’s also a sensory element to all this.

Neuroscientists point out that there’s a sensory aspect to autism’s eye contact issues. For instance, one study of 53 children (22 with autism, 31 without) looked at how much of their brains get activated when processing visual stimuli. (The children were shown flashing lights coming from different directions while electrodes measured their brain activity.) Researchers found that all the children with autism showed more brain activity when processing things on the periphery of their vision. In contrast, children without autism showed a higher activity level for things in the centre of their visual field. So, these sensory processing differences could be as valid a reason as psychological or social explanations for eye gaze patterns.

And there are biochemical factors, too.

Children with autism have differences even at the level of individual cells. For instance, a certain type of G-protein in their cell membrane is easily damaged, which triggers a cell ‘danger response,’ limiting how much energy the cell produces. And this energy deficit is said to affect visual-motor planning (i.e., planning actions based on what the eyes see). Similarly, their cells struggle to produce myelin – a mix of protein and fatty substances that form a layer of insulation around nerves. And less myelin around the optic nerve, in particular, can change how information gets passed from the eyes to the brain.

The point is that we need to be methodical and patient when dealing with something this nuanced.

With so many possible factors, we must address eye contact issues systematically. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and forcing things that aren’t working can cause more damage than good. And yet, it’s worth improving eye contact because people react differently when eye contact is made versus when it isn’t. So, not making eye contact can affect how people engage with your child.

Here’s where a specialist can help.

A skilled specialist can create a custom roadmap for your child based on their unique needs. They’ll know what to work on, how best to explain things to your child, and how hard to push with each type of exercise. And they’ll mix fun games with educational conversations, designing practice sessions to explore your child’s resistance to eye contact. To find out more, feel free to consult with us. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

Image Credit: Freepik

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.