Eye contact

Page contents

Autism and eye contact

Difficulty maintaining eye contact is a common characteristic of individuals on the autism spectrum.

For many autistic people, avoiding eye contact isn’t a sign that they are disinterested – rather, it’s a response to a deeply uncomfortable sensation.

Due to differing cognitive abilities, it can be challenging to coordinate listening and looking behaviors, while receiving and processing information coming from multiple sensory channels.

Eye contact has a significant place in nonverbal communication

A failure to make eye contact can be misconstrued by others as disinterest or inattention.

Not making eye contact can also be seen by others as:

  • lack of empathy
  • lack of engagement
  • rudeness lack of connection to people

Why eye contact can be difficult for autistic people

  • The face is complex: the brain sees visual information, has to process it, understand what it means, and then know what to do with the information
  • Can find it difficult to focus both on spoken language and on another person’s eyes at the same time
  • Listening, and then answering, is mentally demanding
  • May lack the usual social motivation that leads to making eye contact
  • May not realise that watching another person’s eyes is more revealing than, for example, watching that person’s mouth or hands
  • May have difficulty reading more subtle body language, including messages conveyed via the eye.

Why eye contact can be difficult for autistic people (cont)

  • Sustained eye contact can feel intense
  • The stress from making eye contact can make an autistic individual nervous, tense and scared
  • May feel uneasy around the person who is attempting to make eye contact
  • Can feel a general sense of social anxiety or shyness
  • May be unaware of the necessity to look at someone
  • Be from a culture that sees direct eye contact as a sign of disrespect
  • Eye contact can create physical and psychological discomfort.

Why is eye contact important to others?

Eye contact in communication:

  • Demonstrates that you are listening to what the person has to say
  • Indicates an interest in the conversation and the person
  • Builds confidence and respect 
  • Builds social connection
  • Can signal love and security
  • Eye contact can be important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest in what you are saying.

Eye contact strategies to practice

On some occasions it is important to make eye contact, for example at a job interview. Here are some suggestions for finding a way around something that may be naturally difficult for you.

You don’t necessarily have to look someone directly in the eyes, you could:

  • Look at other parts of the face when someone is talking, such as their ear 
  • Look to the side or behind the person who is taking, for example look at the poster behind the person
  • Be facing the person talking (even if you are not looking them in the eye)
  • Look toward the ground near the other person
  • Try to make fleeting eye contact
  1. Nod or speak affirmatively to demonstrate you are listening
  2. Use socially appropriate comments to indicate your attention. For example: “yes” or “okay”. These comments should come when the other person pauses – not while they are speaking.
  3. Try not to walk away while the person is still talking to you
  4. It can be helpful if you tell people you are listening • “I am paying attention even though I’m not looking at you.”

Ask and Autistic #21 – What about eye contact?

Why is eye contact so difficult (for an autistic person)

Summary

  • Being forced to make eye contact can hinder the ability to socially interact rather than enhance it
  • May need flexibility to communicate in a more-comfortable manner (without eye contact)
  • It can be difficult to maintain a conversation, gather thoughts and respond appropriately if forced to maintain eye contact
  • Can concentrate better when not having to keep eye contact at the same time. May be easier to process information when looking at something else
  • Avoiding eye contact while formulating a response to a question, can help with giving a considered response.
  • A lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean rudeness or indifference.

End of Module Questions

  • Can eye contact be difficult for you?
  • Why would eye contact be important at a job interview?
  • What are some ways that you could practice eye contact?

Download alternative formats