It has been a common perception in recent years that when children with autism avoid eye contact out of indifference. People have said they are in their own world and need to be brought out of it.
Children with ASD are very different from one another, in their struggles and levels of functioning. A few things they have in common are sensory issues and social misperception. These contribute to them seeming indifferent to the world around them.
Some experience overstimulation of the senses and some may experience under stimulation. Still others have both issues. They have them with varying levels of severity.
There is always some degree of sensory mismanagement happening in the brain for a person with autism. The Autism Research Institute states that in these kids the nervous system has difficulty integrating sensory information.
This trouble receiving, organizing, filtering and making sense of incoming information is known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction.
A lot of the puzzling and challenging behaviors seen in these kids are a result of either overstimulation of the senses or understimulation.
Too much information or too much sensory input causes stress, anxiety and possibly pain. Sensory overload can be caused by lights, sound, emotions from others, smell and even touch. For example, certain fabrics are aversive to kids and adults with autism as well as the feeling of clothing tags against the skin.
When there are multiple things going on at once, such as at a grocery store for example, it can be too much to process. A person with autism may just withdraw or act out in a socially inappropriate way in an attempt to escape the overload.
Bodily responses to sensory issues
Some signs of Sensory Integration Dysfunction are:
- Poor coordination
- Short attention span
- Difficulty identifying objects by touch
- Lack of balance
- Repetitive speech
- Repetitive behaviors (hand flapping, head banging, spinning)
- Slow speech
- Avoidance of gross motor activities
- Anxiety in a new situation
- Overreaction to touch
- Difficulty with fine motor skills
Their brain may not filter stimuli or balance sensory input. It may be like having many loud television channels on at one time.
This sensory overload would seem to include eye contact, according to new research.
In a study published in Scientific Reports, June, 2017 at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, they concluded that autism creates an overload in the brain in response to eye contact.
They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure subcortical system activation, as subjects viewed faces in photographs. Some of the study participants had autism and some were neurotypical people. When viewing photos of various people’s facial expressions, the participants with autism experienced overactivation of the brain. These brain changes were increased when they viewed fearful faces.
Since neurotransmitters both stimulate and calm the brain, the researchers say the study suggests an imbalance of neurotransmitters. People with autism are prone to anxiety, which is linked to serotonin synthesis and amygdala activity. So looking away from others’ eyes is a means of self-preservation.
Nouchine Hadjikhani, a study author and a Harvard associate professor stated, “Our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.”
This part of the brain is responsible for helping babies to want to turn their heads towards faces that are familiar to them.
This is interesting because it has been thought that people with autism have trouble identifying emotions on faces, but maybe they just can’t handle focusing long enough on a face to feel comfortable doing it.
Faces produced negative feelings
Another study in 2005 suggested that people with autism discern faces as an “uncomfortable threat.” Kim M. Dalton and colleagues of the University of Wisconsin-Madison did a study with 27 teens with autism. Also using MRI, they scanned their brains, tracking eye movements while they looked at photographs of neutral appearing faces. The part of the brain associated with negative feelings, the amygdala, showed higher activity.
Since photos are usually less threatening seeming than an actual person, it could follow that their brain response could be even more heightened in real life scenarios.
Adults with autism have described the deep stress they felt when parents and teachers tried to coerce them into making eye contact. They couldn’t concentrate on what was being said while being forced to look into someone’s eyes.
Even Temple Grandin, a well-known woman with autism and advocate for the disorder, has said she can either have a conversation, or look someone in the eyes, not both.
Adults with autism reveal feelings
In 2016, readers of the Mighty website, which publishes real stories about people with various afflictions, wrote in to tell their stories. Among these excerpts of 16 people with autism, all responded that eye contact made them very uncomfortable. Each person’s perception was very unique, but all conveyed extreme discomfort.
Discussions about eye contact from them included:
- “It feels bad.”
- “Hard to form other thoughts with all that goes on in my head.”
- “Feels like someone is looking into your soul.”
- “Pain and discomfort. Can only process the eye contact.”
- “It’s eye contact or concentration, not both for me.”
- “Taking in everything about them as a person, and I become overloaded.”
- “Disrupts thoughts and zaps energy.”
- “Under pressure, being judged.”
So if eye contact is stressful and overloading in adults and older children, at what age does the brain start perceiving it as such?
Eye contact in babies
It has been discovered that young babies, as early as 2 months of age, have declining eye contact. These babies who may be diagnosed with autism could be showing signs early.
This suggests to researchers that it is possible that prior to 2 months old, the social development of eye contact could have a normal response. Researchers suggest that the child’s genetic background combined with something toxic in the environment may trigger abnormalities.
By 2 years old kids who will be diagnosed with autism only focus on familiar faces half as long as typical kids do.
Because of the sensory overload potential, the researchers say that these kids’ brains may be hyper-functional and require very structured and tailored environments. The way to help these kids flourish, they say, is to create a safe and predictable environment to reduce their hyper-arousal.
The Child Mind Institute discusses sensory issues among children with autism as eliciting a fight or flight response. They have a neurological panic in response to sensations that typically developed people don’t experience.
Is low social motivation involved?
Studies assessing social motivation in kids and adults with autism suggested that low social motivation might contribute to eye contact being uncomfortable. A study of 58 people on the spectrum between the ages of 2 and 35 watched videos of objects and of people. Two screens were presented; one consisted of videos and one of people.
The eye tracking devices deduced that the participants showed low social motivation. Participants chose to watch videos of objects over videos of people. Researchers suggested that the low social motivation could contribute to what comes across as indifference and aversion to eye contact.
Other, similar studies have had similar results. Teens with autism also preferred objects, except when their effort level had to go up in order to choose one over the other. Researchers concluded that low social response could have ties to the social anxiety apparent in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
This preference could be low social motivation, or it could be an aversive response to that which typically causes emotional distress for them, people.
A study from the Research Program on Autism Spectrum Disorders at the National Institute of Mental Health published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that toddlers with autism don’t go out of their way to avoid eye contact. They do meet your gaze less, just don’t avoid it.
They don’t, however, understand the social information found there. This lack of meaning for them can also be a contributing factor to lack of eye contact.
These discoveries don’t discount other theories, particularly the stress response theory. It is possible that confusing social signals can develop a greater negative response in the brain as a child gets older.
It is clear that based on research and personal stories, that eye contact does create stress in older children and adults with autism. Overstimulation of the brain and of all the senses is an issue when it comes to social integration.
Should society force eye contact?
Educators and parents have typically in the past consistently urged children on the spectrum to meet adults' eyes when interacting. Researchers have begun to favor the idea of a slower incorporation of eye contact into daily life and therapy sessions. Instead of requiring it constantly, they hope to desensitize children more gradually, to cause less stress.
There are advocates who don’t believe children with autism should have to make eye contact at all if they don’t want to. If the kids are more comfortable interacting without it, then they should be left alone in that respect, according to this school of thought.
Socially though, many feel they will be better off if they can incorporate some eye contact into their lives. Connecting with others is a positive, and in this society meeting someone’s gaze is emotionally important.
Even Temple Grandin, who accepts her autism and has succeeded despite it, does say on her website that eye contact can and should be introduced gradually to children with autism.