Teaching Active Listening Skills to Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"My child (high functioning autistic) 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 youngster with ASD or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) to "look people in the eye" during conversations, there is certainly something to be said for teaching him 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.

Kids with HFA 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 grown-ups and their peers. 

Some of the way they interact with others can cause teasing or other behaviors that cause the "special needs" child to feel lonely or left out of the conversations of others. Kids on the autism spectrum often can tell that something is wrong with their interactions with others, and their self-esteem can suffer as a result.

Fortunately, they 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 youngster to use proper eye contact and facial expressions is possible, and often works very well in helping improve his or her self-esteem.

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

Because these things don’t come naturally to children on the spectrum, 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 youngster ages. 

These skills go a long way toward the advancement of these young people in their lives and in society. It can make the difference between being a "disabled" person (unfair label that HFA kids often receives) versus "a youngster with a few quirks."

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    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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