Why Is Eye Contact Is So Hard For People With Autism
When Xolie Morra Cogley greets clients at her dog grooming business in Seattle, she struggles to make eye contact, a common trait among people with autism. Once the customers leave, eye contact with the dogs is much easier ― and essential.
Cogley, 37, who describes herself as an “autistic woman of all trades,” said she’s trained herself to keep eye contact with her four-legged charges to establish the essential leadership role in order to avoid aggression and bites.
People are a different story. But Cogley said they are understanding of her eye shifts when she explains why.
“I choose to tell them when I get the feeling that they are having a hard time understanding my different expression of anxiety,” she added.
Dr. Susan Fletcher-Watson, who heads up the Development Autism Research Society, or DART, at the University of Edinburgh, argues that training autistic individuals to make eye contact is a bit like a left-handed person training themselves to write with the opposite hand.
“There’s no real evidence that improving eye-contact leads to better friendships or real world adjustment,” Fletcher-Watson says in a blog on DART’s site. “If eye contact makes the neurotypical community feel more comfortable, maybe it is our responsibility instead to learn to adapt to the interactive style of autistic people. If we’re so ‘socially skilled,’ then why are we so bad at doing this?”
History shows that eye contact is tied to our earliest survival instincts as a species, granting children with the ability to attract attention through eye contact a greater chance of being fed. Moreover, eye contact is associated with trust in Western society.
Then again, perspective is everything.
It is important to note differing cultural beliefs concerning eye contact. In the Japanese and Navajo
Many in the autism community, including neurotypical parents raising children with autism, have learned to cope with this expectation and even come up with innovative ways to overcome the issue.
Kara Tyler, a 39-year-old Baltimore resident, is the mother of a 14-year-old girl with ASD. Instead of working against her brain, Tyler revealed how she taught her child to feign eye contact for the comfort of others, without inviting overstimulation.
“I taught my kiddo to look between people’s eyebrows,” she said. “People register it as eye contact and it doesn’t make them feel as on the spot.”
For Cogley, her focus remains the same: Removing the anxiety around her own sensory triggers, which include making eye contact.
“Eye contact is a choice that I’ve made for myself, and I pushed myself to learn it, so that I could accomplish it” she said. “Not everybody needs to have eye contact, or push their limitations. But I wouldn’t be where I am today with my sensory issues, if I didn’t push myself … to do things that were uncomfortable and caused anxiety.”