Enforcing eye contact is a tricky endeavor in children with autism. While gently taking a child’s head into your hands and asking him to look at you might seem innocuous, it actually can be very stressful. Parents and professionals alike need to consider the complexity of the brain networks in autism and make sure we don’t cause additional problems, such as increased anxiety. Psychiatrist and autism expert Dr. Josh Feder says it best:
“Forced eye contact, which, even when couched in a training framework, triggers an entire different cascade of brain activity, more associated with threat and fear and protection. Instead of activating empathic ability, it limits social learning to, at best, efforts to escape pain.
So, while we need to support the positive reaching out embedded in natural eye contact, we need to be careful about reductionistic approaches. When we gently and respectfully engage someone who doesn’t tend to look at us a lot, then we are (slowly, gradually) strengthening the person’s empathic capacity”. Josh Feder, 2014
Gentle, respectful engagement holds the sensitivity of reactivity and the differences in neural connectivity characteristic of autism. Let’s remember that persons with autism do not avoid eye contact to be anti-social. The tendency to avoid direct eye contact has an adaptive function – meaning it serves some purpose for the individual’s system. Our treatment techniques to improve eye contact need to need to be respectful of the complexity involved.