Nili Geldwert, M.A. CCC-SLP and Julie Pike, M.A., CCC-SLP
Make eye contact! - this is a popular phrase that many parents and educators use to get a child to look and focus on someone. There is good intention behind this and both parents and educators have the same goals when they give this directive. The goals are to have their child/student look at someone to gain information; look at someone because it is socially expected to when talking and listening; and to look at someone as a sign of respect (in American culture). However, for many individuals on the autism spectrum they find this to be physically uncomfortable and therefore counterintuitive to the goals of making eye contact. According to Jeanette Purkis, an individual on the autism spectrum, as well as an author and passionate advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum, “Eye contact makes me feel threatened, I may not look you in the eye but that doesn’t mean I’m not taking in what you are saying.” Research also supports that it is difficult for some people on the autism spectrum to have two sensory inputs work simultaneously, therefore making one input suffer.
But, we cannot deny that eye contact is not important in our New York City culture and beyond.
So….how do we address this, while still respecting our clients’ sensory needs? At Social Adventures NYC, we focus on teaching social communication strategies instead of discrete social skills trials. Our philosophy is based on dynamic and organic experiences and the associated positive and negative natural consequences. For example, when you are not attending to someone’s facial expression and/or body language, you miss valuable information from the speaker and might miss out on something fun. According to Professor Mehrabian’s research, he discovered the following communication model: 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and 7% is the actual, literal words spoken. Of course, every communication event is unique, so therefore this cannot blindly be applied, but it is important to acknowledge and to take a moment to think about the impact this has on your child. The best way to try to relate to this, is thinking about going to a foreign country and not understanding what eye contact means in that culture. You may take a few days to observe and feel a bit uncomfortable, but then quickly figure it out. In contrast, our clients need support in understanding what comes intuitively to us.
Here are some ways in which we help our clients think with their eyes in therapy. We utilize specific language to highlight and encourage the use of thinking with their eyes to gain information and to communicate a message.