Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Gaze Avoidance in Aspergers Children


I have a student with Aspergers who always appears to be staring off into space. I have asked him to look me in the eye when trying to get his attention - and he will make eye contact for a split second - but then look off again. Is there some way to get through to him and help him focus?


It is rarely the case that the Aspergers student who is actively avoiding eye contact is also purposely avoiding paying attention. Rather, this student is more likely (a) engaging in a form of stress-reduction and (b) facilitating his own cognitive processing of what he is hearing.

Teachers have been taught that it is essential to get the student’s attention before starting class and to recapture attention to task when the student’s demeanor suggests that his attention is waning. To accomplish this task, teachers often first attempt to get attention by cuing, "Look at me." They also often assume that they have the student’s attention when they "get eye contact" and that those who do not conform cannot be paying attention. Thus, when the Aspergers student seems to avoid looking into the eyes of teachers with whom he interacts, the strategy that comes most naturally and is often pursued quite intently is the verbal cue, "Look at me."

If the Aspergers student fails to respond within what is viewed as a reasonable length of time, the cue may be repeated more forcefully. If the Aspie continues to fail to look as directed, misinterpretations of why he isn't "complying" may fuel futile power struggles that only frustrate everyone concerned and further thwart the abilities of the Aspergers child to respond. Whether “demanding eye contact” is a wise approach to focusing attention depends both on the Aspie and on circumstances surrounding the expectation.

“Gaze avoidance” (sometimes called “gaze aversion”) is when a person’s eyes don't quite meet the eyes of the other person when having a conversation. Some people call this "shifty eyed" – but for some children and teens with Aspergers, this is a necessary coping strategy to avoid being overwhelmed by the other person's direct eye contact. Gaze avoidance could be a central component of the social phobia sometimes experienced by Aspergers individuals.

Aspergers individuals appear sophisticated in their use of gaze avoidance and will instinctively avert their gaze from potentially distracting stimuli during a conversation. Also, the amount of time spent engaged in gaze avoidance has been shown to increase as the Aspie’s level of social discomfort increases. So, gaze aversion appears to function as a method to short-circuit a stress-response.

Research suggests that having access to non-verbal language (e.g., facial expressions, eye gaze, lip movements, gestures, etc.) benefits communication and social interaction. Visual cues also play an important role in everyday communication (e.g., can enable a listener to recognize ambiguous utterances), in addition to playing an important role in conversational turn-taking. However, because visual cues serve as such rich sources of information, they also have the potential for over-whelming the Aspergers individual who may have sensitivities to certain social stimuli.

When an Aspergers child processes facial expressions during complicated cognitive activity (e.g., listening to the speaker, being asked to respond to a question), performance will suffer because some ‘fixed attentional limit’ will be exceeded. Thus, the Aspie looks away from faces to avoid ‘cognitive overload’. This perspective is supported by the finding that, as task difficulty increases, so too does the use of gaze avoidance.

In addition to the potential cognitive influences on gaze avoidance, we should also consider the social constraints on prolonged gaze during conversation. Gaze plays an important role in expressing a variety of emotions (e.g., intimacy, dominance, social competence, etc.). Given that there exist social constraints on patterns of gaze behavior in conversation, gaze avoidance might occur during a particular interaction to reduce heightened feelings of social anxiety or embarrassment. An increase in gaze avoidance in response to a demand for attention, a request for eye-to-eye contact, or increasingly difficult questions could therefore result due to an increase in feelings of self-consciousness.

Eye contact is a form of non-verbal communication, and we assume a person is giving us his attention if he looks at us. However, understand that the Aspergers student experiences difficulty with eye contact – it is extremely difficult for him to focus his eyes on a person for any extended period of time. Limited eye contact is a part of the disability. It is recommended that teachers do not demand that an Aspergers student look them in the eyes as they are talking to him.

What appears to the teacher to be behavior illustrating a lack of attention on the part of the student may not be that at all. In fact, the Aspergers student who is engaging in gaze avoidance may actually be trying to focus on what the teacher is saying. The student is unaware that, nonverbally, he is communicating to the teacher that “I'm not interested in what you’re saying” … “You are boring me.” You might simply ask the Aspergers student a simple question to check if he was listening.

The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook


Anonymous said...

From a young age, kids watch TV. They see "important" people being interviewed, and these people never look at them. Never mind that they're looking at the interviewer, that's not obvious to Aspies or little kids. So they learn that when you have something important to say, you DON'T look at your audience. It's a little thing, but it's another example of how television is changing our culture.

Anonymous said...

Have you looked into avoidant personality disorder? Some people who have thought they may be aspies were later diagnosed with that; it might be a possibility for people who don’t quite fit on the spectrum. Avoidant personality disorder makes people very sensitive to criticism, they avoid people and eye contact because they are so worried what people may be thinking. (Very brief summing up there).

Anonymous said...

I don't know if NTs consider things like this but... I'm more likely to look at people if they're not standing in front of really distracting things. Since I tend to put those things at my back, if I was facing me I'd be less likely to make eye contact.

Anonymous said...

If I dislike the person, esp. if I question the validity of my dislike or am not in a position to fully snub the person. There are people who disturb my psychic airspace; I just can't get comfortable with them, or they send mixed messages, or they seem condescending or make stupid, unfunny jokes or are overly friendly and seem to expect a lot of warmth from me in return.

Anonymous said...

If you make eye contact with people, it encourages them to try to make more eye contact with you. But if you're rarely looking when they try to make eye contact, then the more astute ones will stop trying. A lot of friendly things are like that- if you respond with to what they see as friendliness with the same actions they use, and then they're likely to continue doing those things, but if you don't, then some of them will stop.

Anonymous said...

There are people I can't help disliking, but since they haven't really done anything "wrong," or because I may be in a work situation & unable to walk away, I find I literally cannot look them in the eye. I get agitated; I may feel somewhat trapped, if they are keeping me from what I'm supposed to be doing, or they are demanding more emotional engagement than I can deliver, I withdraw to keep them from getting even more into my face & space.

Anonymous said...

There is some kind of a rule, I don’t fully know the details, but it’s something like - when you talk to someone they look away, and then when they reply to you, you look away, which is supposed to be non-challenging. They don’t constantly eye gaze, but they seem to do it all naturally. I have noticed Judge Judy does something like that. I watch it whenever I can, it’s very interesting, and she has a very good logic.

Anonymous said...

Since reading about AS, I notice a fairly large proportion of people don't make eye contact when speaking to me or other people. Even though I've been observing a non-random group (mostly maths/science sophomore students at my university) they're likely not all aspies. What are other possible causes?

Anonymous said...

If I am working, getting things done on a real or even self-imposed deadline, and people keep breaking into my little work bubble to talk to me, esp. if I feel they are rushing me, I can become FURIOUS. :evil: Likewise, if everyone is talking at me at once, if I have a hectic few minutes and people keep pushing me, the stress builds, and I don't blow up, but I'm sure my agitation shows in my face. Under those circumstances, I will again try to avoid or limit eye contact, again to protect myself against further intrusion.

Anonymous said...

Avoidant personality disorder makes people very sensitive to criticism, they avoid people and eye contact because they are so worried what people may be thinking.

Bulldogma said...

I am a visual learner. In order to process audio stimuli, I often need to focus my eyes on something less stimulating so I can "translate" the words I am hearing into pictures in my mind. If I feel I have to look someone in the eye, I may not absorb a word they are saying. Why? Because a visual learner will first absorb visual stimuli, and we Aspies often can only focus on one thing at a time. If all I am allowed to focus on is "looking at" you, I many not be able to "listen" to you - a skill that does not come as easily to me, and therefore needs all my concentration.
Please don't try to force an Aspie or any other visual learner look at you if you want them to hear you.

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