Un-therapeutic therapy – Why forcing eye contact does more harm than good 

This morning  I was reading an excellent blog post by a friend about picking the best therapist for your autistic child (link: https://sidautism.blogspot.com.au)

The post has a list of positive qualities in therapists and also a list of negative ones. This is important for a number of reasons. Some therapies for autistic kids are decidedly unhelpful and very likely to do more harm than good.

One of the contentious areas when speaking about therapies and autism is the sort of therapies which aim to make autistic kids seem somehow ‘less autistic’. The premise of this seems to be something like their life will be easy if they aren’t noticeably different.

Sadly this is an approach which can leave autistic kids feeling invalidated and doubting everything they do. Some experience trauma from these kinds of therapies into adult life. Autism is integral to autistic people’s identity, experience and understanding. It is not a separate bit of the person which can be removed or otherwise ‘fixed.’  And you definitely can’t ‘fix’ autism through teaching autistic people not to stim or to make eye contact. The reason for this is that autistic people’s stimming and not making eye contact are there for a reason. Eye contact is generally very unpleasant and stimming is a vital part of managing stress, social situations and helping autistic people to focus and some other things too. So autistic kids may be able to ‘look neurotypical’ (whatever that means) but they are likely to struggle a lot more in their daily life. These therapies send an unspoken message to autistic kids that their autism – and as such them – is lacking and lesser than the ‘norm’.

I just want to focus on one element of this issue for this article: making eye contact.

Autistic people usually find eye contact very unpleasant. I have heard people say it causes physical pain, it is like lasers going in their eyes or like the other person can see right into you. For me I find I can see into the person’s very soul if I make eye contact. It is horrendous and I never do it for more then the millisecond it takes me to realise I have accidentally looked in someone’s eyes. I only learned what colour my own eyes were a couple of years ago and finding out caused me a lot of stress as I had to look in my own eyes. I was concerned I might not be able to pull away from my own gaze in the mirror.

However the neurotypical world – or the English speaking western version of it at least – seems to see eye contact as something essential to communication. Not making eye contact apparently means you aren’t listening or that you are being sneaky. In fact, eye contact as a cornerstone of respectful communication is not the standard around the world. Many cultures see eye contact between people of different social standings or ages as being highly disrespectful and aggressive. You don’t even have to go all that far to find this different view. Many Aboriginal cultures in Australia consider eye contact very rude in certain contexts.

I was a school student many years before the Asperger’s diagnosis was available. I went through school looking at my books or my feet. Teachers would  tell me to look at them when they spoke to me. Amazingly to my mind, they thought this was a prerequisite for me to be able to listen to them. I was a LOT happier and more able to take in information from a conversation while looking at the floor or another point in the room than directing my gaze at the teacher’s eyes. I was instructed to look at people so much I learned how to do it without doing it. Even now, when I remember, I will look at the general direction of a person’s face – around the nose usually – when we are conversing. Lots of people seem to find that comforting. I often find my gaze has shifted without me knowing during the conversation and the person I’m talking to gets all flustered and looks a where I was looking as if there were a swarm of bees there or something! It is tricky this business of trying to look ‘ordinary’. The only being who I know the colour of their eyes is Mr Kitty. For some reason I’m very happy making respectful eye contact in non-verbal cat communication with Mr Kitty – in fact I understand cat expressions and body language about 10000 times more than I do that of humans.

I really struggle when an autistic child is forced to make eye contact. They actually often find it much harder to listen to what is being said because making eye contact is so unpleasant and disturbing. So the autistic kids who ‘succeed’ at that sort of therapy therapy are probably actually less able to pay attention!

I think that these kinds of things which focus on making autistic children appear less different are more about the appearance to others than the actual welfare of the child.

I would so much prefer that the world we live in didn’t involve some people feeling the  need to make autistic kids look less autistic but instead promoted their qualities and strength and humanity and understood their differences. I can’t see how this is so hard to achieve but I do think that therapists and educators forcing autistic kids to make eye contact and address ‘behaviours’ which hurt nobody but just look ‘odd’ is part of the things which hold back inclusion and respect for autistic people.

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5 thoughts on “Un-therapeutic therapy – Why forcing eye contact does more harm than good 

  1. For me, eye contact does vary depending on the person and I do recall once hyperfocusing on my conversation with a friend where I noticed I was staring so intensely into her eyes. Normally it feels like bad / overwhelming sensory input, some people more overwhelming than others. That means my brain is processing too much for me to process words as well, and if I’m looking at their eyes, how can I see their body language or facial expressions? All I see are their eyes.

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