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Understanding and Overcoming Eye Contact Anxiety

Difficulty with eye contact is one of the main struggles for people with autism and one of the first indications that parents and guardians usually have that indicates that a child might be on the spectrum. Eye contact anxiety amongst people with autism usually happens for a number of different reasons, but it’s commonly because of sensory overload they might feel while in social situation that requires eye contact, especially if that contact is forced. Yet many schools practice techniques that endeavor to improve eye contact and many parents want to help their child improve crucial independence skills, including eye contact. At the same time, many experts believe that forcing eye contact actually increases anxiety for people with ASD and that new understandings of neurodiversity indicate that we need to change the way we train staff and personnel rather than the individuals they provide for. There are experts on both sides that reinforce one brand of thinking or another. This mixed message can get confusing for anyone involved, but the focus should not be on right or wrong, but on what people with ASD say about the cause of eye contact anxiety and how to best manage what they need so they can improve their quality of life. In order to give strategies to manage eye contact concerns, we have to first understand them.

Understanding The Anxiety

People often speculate what is the cause for eye contact anxiety and avoidant behavior among people with ASD. Psychologists working with people with autism have often attributed the avoidance to social misunderstanding. Others contend that there is a sensory, neurological reason that people with autism tend to struggle with eye contact. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital revisited old research about the region of the brain called the subcortical system, a part of the brain responsible for the carrying of visual information to other parts that regulate emotion. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers required subjects to watch clips of different emotional responses on people’s faces with a red cross between the eyes for focus. Among children and adults with ASD, the subcortical system was highly active when they were compelled to focus on the eye region. Researchers believe that the lack of eye contact from people with autism is not due to a lack of interpersonal interest or a dismissal of concern. Instead, this behavior is a way to decrease an undesirable overstimulation in a certain part of the brain. Therefore eye contact anxiety is a justified response to an overstimulation of parts of the brain.

This research may be news to some, while acting as validation for many people with ASD that have insisted for some time that eye contact anxiety stems from the inner sensory overload. However, we know that in order to live independently in a society that is not mindful of neuro-diversity, a lack of eye contact can be seen as anything from rude to downright criminal. Eye contact anxiety is unaccounted for by teachers and administrators in public schools, who employ attention strategies to maintain order in their classrooms that start with a “look at me” command. When someone with autism has eye contact anxiety, some teachers see this as a challenge to authority. This might carry disciplinary consequences for people that are already struggling with eye contact anxiety, leading to even more struggles with the inner sensory overload. This can be compounded during interactions with law enforcement, who might see a lack of eye contact or dismissive glances as suspicious behavior. These two scenarios alone indicate that even if the public understanding of neurodiversity is changing, it’s still important to help people overcome their eye contact anxiety.

Overcoming the Anxiety

While eye contact anxiety is not something that can be banished permanently, there are ways to learn to overcome it or at least cope with it in stimulating social situations. Parents, guardians and mentors that help people learn these strategies should remember that speedy training and expectation of results sooner could lead to more eye contact anxiety. Slow introduction and continued habituation is the most successful way to help people overcome fears without getting stressed. Learning this skill also becomes more complex for adults with eye contact anxiety, but it’s not impossible to learn. Here are strategies that you can try:

Eye Contact For Children

  • Kids are more likely to make eye contact if you are entertaining and fun. This encourages them to look at you.
  • Reinforce eye contact with things a child wants. Try holding whatever goodies they are asking near your eye line, but closer to the center of your face or even your mouth. Encourage at least sight line understanding this way.
  • Get on the same level as your child. Do not expect them to look up to you as they attempt to make eye contact.
  • Prompt your child to make eye contact when they hear their name using the same reward system. At first do it right in front of them, but then you can try leaving the room, calling their name and when they come to make eye contact, you can reward them.
  • Finally once, they are used to making eye contact for things they want and making eye contact once they have heard their name, you can call their name and reward eye contact as you give instruction.

Eye Contact For Adults

  • Start by reducing eye contact anxiety triggers. Practice at home by making eye contact with TV characters, Youtube hosts and other media figures. Then you can graduate to Facetime or video chats. Finally, start practicing with a trusted friend in a face to face environment.
  • As you begin to interact, make eye contact before you start talking to someone.
  • Try to maintain eye contact for 50 percent of the time when you speak and 70 percent of the time when listening.
  • Try to hold eye contact for a few seconds at a time, long enough to notice their eye color.
  • When looking away, do it slowly and don’t look down, as these might be seen as signs of nervousness. Try breaking eye contact with a nod or gesture.
  • Finally, if you struggle making eye contact, you can look at a different spot on their face such as their forehead, nose, mouth and chin.

Improving Eye Contact Through Community

One of the best ways to overcome being grappled by eye contact anxiety is to forge a partnership with sympathetic community. You want to find someone that isn’t about authoritative correction and opt for a community that is patient with your journey or the journey of your loved one. At Lexington, we understand the importance of eye contact in social situations but we are also very mindful of our members that struggle with eye contact anxiety. Our programs are designed to help our members reach their goals and experience the quality of their lives. We want to help you overcome eye contact anxiety. Give Lexington Services a call today at 480-900-1009 or send an email to!

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