Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Teaching Active Listening Skills to Aspergers Kids

"My Aspergers child rarely makes eye contact with people other than immediate family. Our neighbors have even made the comment that my son appears to ignore them when they have attempted a conversation, and now they have pretty much stopped trying to engage him. Should I insist that he look people in the eye when they are talking to him, or just let it go?"

While it's not a good idea to force a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism to "look people in the eye" during conversations, there is certainly something to be said for teaching the child a few social skills so that he's not perceived as being rude. Giving the speaker some indication that you are listening is simply the polite thing to do, and your son needs to understand this.

Children with Aspergers generally don’t have the innate ability to exchange eye contact or use appropriate facial expressions when interacting with others. This can make them seem odd when interacting with both adults and their peers. Some of the way they interact with others can cause teasing or other behaviors that cause the Aspergers child to feel lonely or left out of the conversations of others. Aspergers children often can tell that something is wrong with their interactions with others, and their self-esteem can suffer as a result.

Fortunately, these children are usually very intelligent and can be taught things that otherwise wouldn’t come naturally. In other words, social skills training directed at specifically teaching the child to use proper eye contact and facial expressions is possible, and often works very well in helping improve the child’s self-esteem.

This kind of training is generally very concrete and explicit. Some general psychotherapists can do this, but those who deal with Aspergers or occupational therapists as part of school or a clinic can teach the Aspergers child the techniques needed for greater social acceptance and a secondary greater self esteem. And of course, parents are in a great position to teach these social skills as well.

Because these things don’t come naturally to children with Aspergers, they learn things like when to smile, laugh, or use facial expression in the same way they learn facts and figures in school. They learn through instruction and role play, and the skills may need to be reinforced as the child ages. 

These skills go a long way toward the advancement of these children in their lives and in society. It can make the difference between being a "disabled" individual (unfair label that the Aspergers child often receives) versus "a kid with a few quirks."


Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management



•    Anonymous said... You need to teach him. This is one of many skills he will need to learn to function/succeed in society. A couple of tips from my experience: first explain that looking at a person's face is a SIGNAL to the other person that you're listening and that you NEED to do it every time. For years I was accusing my son of not listening when he wasn't looking, but he WAS listening, just not signaling it. When I explain these as social rules that he has to follow he seems to have an easier time adopting them. Second, talk to your neighbors and educate them about Aspergers. They don't need to feel ignored just because your child doesn't know the right signals to send. Every positive social interaction helps. Third, have your child learn to pick a spot on a person's face - forehead, chin, anywhere near their eyes, to look at during conversations. It can be hard for someone with Aspergers to articulate why looking in other peoples eyes is so uncomfortable, but it is and won't stop being that way. Teach them how to compromise. Look at their eyes briefly, then find other places on the face to signal that you're listening. My current problem is teaching my son to look at other people during sports, like throwing a baseball to someone, but it will come. Your child is very intelligent, you just need to find a way to explain social rules most of the world take for granted in a way that he can understand and keep reminding him until they become a habit for him.
•    Anonymous said... You need to exp to them why your son is like he is they are grown up so they should understand
•    Anonymous said... with my aspergers hubby if i tell him he should look at people he tends to stare, that can cause trouble too,
•    Anonymous said... TIP: It can appear that you are looking someone in the eye if you look at the bridge of someone's nose or their forehead. My son who is 13 feels uncomfortable with looking someone in the eye and have given him this tip. He says it helps.
•    Anonymous said... There are support groups in FB for adults with autism. I like to go on there an ask this question of folks who can actually tell me what their experience is because they can verbalized it better than my son who is only 10. They are always helpful to me and it helps me understand him and what he's going through better! I don't insist because my son also has anxiety and when he makes eye contact the faces blur (according to him and several adult aspies I asked). Tell your neighbors to work in being more understanding!
•    Anonymous said... take to mind every child is like a finger print and trust your gut feelings, because you know your child and how far you can correct behaviors do to the Autism.
•    Anonymous said... my son listens better when not looking at us. We don't force it and he looks at when he wants to.
•    Anonymous said... My son has Aspergers and we have taught him to look at either someones nose or forehead when they are speaking to them. Keeping him from wandering around while he's speaking is something we are still working on.
•    Anonymous said... my aspie child is selective. i can now see instantly who he will have a good relationship with in seconds. i think he knows that too. we gently remind him to look at people. sometimes he doesn't look at us, his parents... especially if we are reprimanding him about something. don't force it, gently remind, gently discuss, they will learn to cope as they enter into adulthood.
•    Anonymous said... I know NT kids who pretty much ignore anyone not already in their social circle. But I admit the "listening but not looking" thing is hard to remember, even for me. I do press eye contact in important situations but stress that it's for my comfort that he's paying attention and let him know that's what people expect.
•    Anonymous said... I have to say my son use to have the same issue and it was before we knew he had Autism but he had a hearing impairment that would be later corrected with tubes. We held his face to communicate with him forcing eye contact. He was diagnosed several years later with Autism. I can say now that he is an adult he was not forever damaged by us forcing eye contact, as he now thanks me for the boundaries that I put in place for him.
•    Anonymous said... I had trouble with eye contact as a child (looking in peoples' eyes felt like being burned is the only way to describe the sensation I had when I made eye contact). A family friend suggested I look "around" peoples' eyes--eyebrow, nose, checkbone, mouth- instead of zeroing in on their pupils. This worked for me and I gradually was able to make more eye contact and feel less discomfort. I also discovered it was much easier to make eye contact while wearing glasses or sunglasses. The lenses provided just enough of a barrier to make eye contact more comfortable. I taught the same techniques to my son who has the same difficulty with eye contact. I hope this helps.
•    Anonymous said... don't insist. My son is 16 and a very successful HS sophomore. He still doesn't look at us when talking, or listening. We wrote in all his IEPs that teachers should realize that he's listening the most when he's not looking. And we explain to friends that he is listening. Folks that know him well get used to it. We are trying to teach him to be a self-advocate, and explain himself why he doesn't look. Not there yet. :0)
•    Anonymous said... Don't force it! Teach him to explain to people that he's uncomfortable with eye contact. Works for my almost 9-year-old son.
•    Anonymous said... Definitely not. I have a boy with Autism and there's lots of groups on here and I read one day that when an Autistic child is looking at something their brain is taking pictures quite rapidly, like a camera and they have to look away because their brain overloads. My boy wouldn't look anyone in the eye for more than a second when he was little, but now he's 7 years old and gives really good eye contact. Don't force it, it will come in time xx

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Anonymous said...

My 11 yr old aspie is the same way...only has eye contact with those he's completely confortable with. Don't force him!!! Others will just need to be a little more understanding! Let it go!!!

Anonymous said...

I say let it go...explain to your neighbors that he cant help it...and if they dont understand tell them to move so someone that wants to understand might want to move in LOL

Anonymous said...

keep engouraging him and maybe it will happen in due time.I was not always engaged in full eye contact but i am better now with it then before.They have too see the light in your son and support him.My friends supported me when other people,my peers would not.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tina. We should never have to apologize for our kids disability. Let them be uncomfortable because our kids live that way!!

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can "force" him. And more importantly, in some cases, the person is unable to concentrate on what's being said while making eye contact, it's too much sensory stimulation. I would work with your son on having him try to look in the speakers direction, if not in the eyes, explaining why most people expect that. And I would explain to the neighbors (if you have enough of a relationship that it matters) what's going on with your son, that's it's not personal or rudeness, and that perhaps addressing your son by name in the beginning of a greeting to be certain he's even heard them and giving him enough time (more than a typical person) to respond would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

What about "autism awareness"???? Sheesh, it's plastered everywhere and people still give up so easily with these kids. Force THEM to understand! He'll make eye contact when he's comfortable with it... and that may be never and that is FINE. He has a disorder and he will "hear" them the way that works for him... they need to not judge him as being rude or ignoring them. sorry - soap box. :)

Anonymous said...

My son makes eye contact when he can and often with me as he's comfortable, I'm his mum. If we are talking about deep or difficult stuff he has to look away and that's fine by me. I've found that now my son is older he's easier with eye contact when necessary, things like this have improved with age/confidence and a growing understanding of what others expect.

Anonymous said...

I have aspergers, and it's literally painful for me to look in people's eyes. Pppplease do not force him to do so

Anonymous said...

I guess I am fortunate that my son is able to make eye contact. He just doesn't understand it when we tell him to do things, has little empathy for anyone, etc. I actually had a doctor tell me that he isn't autistic because he does make eye contact. But the rest of the stuff is defintely aspergers.

Anonymous said...

Kids with ASD have to be taught to look at people.. through speech therapy, social skills training. Research has shown that they don't look at peoples faces because they don't read expressions well... ie. when someone is bored, not interested, annoyed, etc. There are numerous programs online that help kids learn and they will!

Anonymous said...

Cammie Henderson Burke hit the nail on the head. My 10 year old son has explained to me why he has trouble and though I understand, others don't. I feel it is their problem if they don't understand. He had a teacher get mad at him for not making eye contact even though she knows he has Aspergers Syndrome....that's what I don't understand.

Anonymous said...

My son has a hard time making eye contact with everyone including his father and I. I tell him everyday to look at me and look into my eyes and he immediately stops what he's doing at looks at me. I then ask him to repeat what I just said and he repeats it. It is the only way I can get him to make eye contact and process what I am saying and it works great. I've also told his teachers and karate teacher to do the same thing and for the most part doesn't need as much prompting to make eye contact and having him repeat something that was just explained to him helps him process it.

Anonymous said...

I know most people say don't force him, but with our son (16 now and looks everyone in the eyes) we would always pause and say 'look mommy in the eyes' using my two fingers pointing at my eyes as a visual cue and I would do it all the time, eventually he did without the cue. I learned this in a social skills group. The thing is, eye contact is very important and we had to teach him to keep his head up too to pay attention (think about cars backing up he doesn't notice, plowing through elderly and others in stores etc) Its very important to help your child learn to look someone in the eyes, as much as you slowly teach them facial expressions. The biggest help in our son's life was being in a social skills group, not to 'fix' him (he still has social quirks) but to help him understand and navigate. My son would not look at anyone in the eye, now he looks someone straight on, is in honors classes (if you can always keep them in classes with everyone else because they pick up on behaviors around them) and this is a child I was told by school he would never be functional in class. Trust me, when they are young the behaviors are extreme and if you dedicate to take the time, and teach those around him some compassion, he will be fine. Also, explain to neighbors why- have thick skin, not all people are understanding. Sometimes you do have to explain if you spend time with neighbors or family, you can't just expect them to know, but you also don't need to explain him to the world. It is a safety measure for those involved in his life to know it's a condition that causes certain things, not willful behavior.I have found most people understand once they know why he does things. I agree about not forcing eye contact but encouraging it, again it's more use of visual cue and tell him 'look at my eyes', over time he will do it on his own. With Asperger's it's a lot of repetition.

Anonymous said...

Our son taught himself to look at others foreheads; much less stimulating!
5 hours ago via mobile · Like

Anonymous said...

I asked Andrew why he couldn't look me in the eyes when I was talking to him and he said it was too loud and the loudness hurts! Of course this was before we knew he had Aspergers.
5 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

I've learned the forehead trick as well a long time ago, a teacher actually told me it, (thanks mrs.beetle)

For those that don't really understand the whole eye contact thing, at least for me it gives me that same feeling you get when you know your about to ride the scariest roller coaster ever, and its better for me just to look in the general direction of the person, then it is to try and withstand that feeling and still concentrate on what that person is saying and avoid the "fight or flight" feeling that'll develop quickly.

I've had people think i wasn't paying attention to them, I've had people say "I find it hard to trust someone who won't even look you in the face" (That one stung a bit) so I tend to repeat word for word the previous 5 minutes of conversation they've just told me if they do indeed think i'm not paying attention to them.

It's something they'll adapt to over time, and forcing them to do something like that, when it gives them the heebie-jeebies can only end in disaster and at least for me, just reinforced the fact that looking at peoples eyes is a generally bad idea.

But i'll tell you right now, If you have a kid with aspergers syndrome....encourage the positive aspects of it like wanting to absorb particular subjects and things, and just don't fret the little things...they really don't matter in the long run. as long as your supportive, a good parent and there for your child, the rest will fall into place i promise and they'll learn to adapt over time to those social awkwardness types of deals.
4 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Aspies don't need eye contact to hear people out or retain the whole conversation. My son was allowed to read in one of his classes because he still heard everything and answered correctly every time the teacher called on him.
If your neighbors feel "ignored" they can test how much he heard or listened by asking him questions, maybe then they'll start understanding that they aren't being ignored :/
I see it as their problem not the child's.

But I did, for a while try to teach him to look at people by talking with him and tapping my nose tip when he started to look away, that brought his attention back to my face if not eye contact, but it did increase the amounts of times he makes eye contact when talking with people. It took a long time but now he looks at people at least half the time during a conversation without prompt, but it's more for their insecurities and being offended than his own benefit really
3 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

I taught myself and my son to look at people's noses or eyebrows. It's hard as an adult when you don't look at people so practicing this now for my son will make a big difference in his adult life.
about an hour ago via mobile · Like

Unknown said...

As a person with aspergers i can tell you that most of you are wrong.
It is not in an aspergers childs best interest to ignore people they don't know/kids in the same class/people on the same street/neighbourhood, etc) as in ignoring them by not making eye contact. or ignoring everyday conversations. to live in a society, and to have friends to be able to get by in life. you need to adapt. for example when i reached 6-8th grade(swedish), teenagers started to get more mature conversations not just playing around. And that's when eye contact/ and starting conversations with new classmates was really important. though i didn't see the point in this and i was severely bullied by my entire school. because rumors of my strange behaviors and "meltdowns" because people in my eyes were targeting me for no reason. i was just disinterested in their conversations and avoided social interaction & eye contact all together. didn't see the point in it. Today (25years) im really socially awkward, really tense around crowds. and/or small groups.
"mingling" around with people is like a minefield. i think i would have benefited a lot from learning the importance of social interaction learning specifically WHY it's good to have and what negative influences it may have on my daily life/future social life: people see you as strange,outsider,misfit. You can't change the whole world to fit your child because the world is too big(sorry moms and dads out there! It's unrealistic ;) Your kids will always face new challenges and having the necessary social skills for it is KEY. building up self confidence, and getting them to cut down on solitude time to be more with friends(get them away from computers!) May teach them to see that social interaction has some good things in store even for them..

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