This material first appeared in an article I wrote for CDIkids.org.
One of the markers of autism is gaze aversion. A child on the spectrum will often look sideways at a person of interest. He might also shift his eyes frequently when speaking to someone instead of maintaining eye contact. This can be uncomfortable for the other person, especially if she’s not aware of his social communication difficulties. Although this may seem like an antisocial behavior, experts say it is really rooted in complex brain processes, confusion in interpreting facial cues, and coping mechanisms.
5 things you should know about gaze aversion in autism:
1. Looking into someone’s eyes can be terrifying
Richard J Davidson, PhD and his team conducted fMRI studies to better understand why children with autism avert their gaze. In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, he states that: “The fact that amygdala activity is elevated when autistic children look at faces—even for a few fractions of a second, as in this experiment—suggests that doing so makes them profoundly uncomfortable, even fearful, and that when they look into someone’s eyes their brains and bodies are flooded with messages that they interpret as threatening. Only by looking away can they stop this onslaught.”
2. Looking Away is a Calming Strategy
If the only way a child can stop feeling fear is by looking away, then, as Davidson points out, it becomes a calming strategy that gets reinforced over time.
3. Neurotypical People use Gaze Aversion Too
Other studies have shown that in the population at large, people who do not fall on the spectrum, avert their gaze when they are not comfortable speaking with others. These people, according to Davidson, are often labeled socially phobic or shy.
4. We move our Eyes When We Think and Analyze
Another research team, from Northumbria University, found that kids on the spectrum move their eyes when thinking and problem solving. Professor Doherty-Sneddon points out that: “Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.” This is true in the general population as well, all people use eye movement to enhance memory recall, analysis and increase accuracy.
5. The Best Strategy is One That Respects the Child
A child needs to feel safe in order to challenge his limits and grow developmentally. Although we want all children to have appropriate social and communication skills, we must offer solutions that take into consideration the building blocks of an individual child’s development, the infrastructure of his brain and its complex processes. Gazing into someone’s face has been proven to increase activity in the fear center of children who are on the spectrum, it is therefore important to respect their limits. It’s better to slowly fix the cause, rather than to quickly cover up the symptoms.
Gaze aversion is an outward symptom of autism. It’s important to understand that it is the brain’s response to a stimuli. People on the spectrum use it to avoid the anxiety it provokes or to process and analyze information.
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