Although eye contact is such an important social skill that most people automatically do everyday without knowing its significance, making eye contact can be extremely stressful for children with autism. And many parents might find themselves asking why it’s so difficult for their son or daughter to communicate and interact with others this way. Adding a bit of insight to this question, a recent study found that toddlers with autism don’t actively avoid making eye contact, rather young children impacted by Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unaware of the social connection that can be communicated simply by the eyes and miss the importance of it altogether.
Difficulty in making eye contact is one of the earliest signs of autism and is also one the biggest developmental challenges that impacts children with autism, which is a disorder of brain development that affects social interaction as well as verbal and nonverbal communication. But, the reason why children with autism lack eye contact has not really been known and the new research published by the American Journal of Psychiatry on Nov. 21 added a bit more context to this long-debated question.
According to Scientific American, one side of this debate argues that children with autism avoid eye contact because it makes them uncomfortable. Others argue that they tend not to look others in the eye because they are simply not interested and don’t particularly notice if the social cues communicated through eye contact because they don’t understand the significance of it, which is ultimately what the researchers' findings supported.
"These results go against the idea that young children with autism actively avoid eye contact," said the study's leader Warren Jones told Science Daily, who is also the director of research at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "They're looking less at the eyes not because of an aversion to making eye contact, but because they don't appear to understand the social significance of eye contact."
The researchers came to this conclusion after studying how 2-year-old children — 86 children total, with and without autism — paid attention to other people's eyes by using eye-tracking technology to follow their gaze responses as they watched a series of carefully made videos.
According to Science Daily, Jennifer Moriuchi, a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta — where the study was conducted — explained how they used the videos:
Before each video, we flashed a small picture to capture the child's attention, and when they looked to where the picture had been, they found that they were either looking directly at another person's eyes or looking away from the eyes. When we did this repeatedly, we found that young children with autism continued to look straight at the eyes. Like their peers without autism, they didn't look away from the eyes or try to avoid the eyes in any way.
The difference between typical toddlers and those impacted by autism happened when the actress in the video spoke and used facial expressions in an emotionally engaging way. Toddlers without autism looked at the actress' eyes as they caught the social cues.
But, toddlers with autism spent less time looking at the actress' eyes overall and their eye contact didn't "vary with the emotional content of her face," according to Scientific American.
Although the researchers noted that the findings don't try to discredit anyone's personal experiences, it suggests that lack of eye contact is not an aversive behavior as children with autism didn't look away any sooner than the other groups when presented with social signals, but looked at the subject's eyes less overall.
Understanding this challenge for toddlers with autism is important for medical professionals as well as parents because therapeutic treatments could be adapted to reflect these findings, which could help children understand why eye contact is such a critical social skill.