It’s considered one of the most common symptoms of autism: a lack of eye contact.
And while that may be true for the a large percentage of people on the autism spectrum, it’s not always the case. And of this, I see proof every day.
Autism & eye contact
When my son, Quinn, talks to me up close and looks straight into my eyes, some people are surprised. In fact, several have been quick to ask, “Are you sure he has autism?”
Yes — we’re sure. (And so are the hundred or so teachers and specialists we’ve had involved in his education and care over the last 12 years.)
“But I always heard that kids with autism don’t make eye contact.”
Well, some kids do — and my son is one who does.
Here’s not looking at you, kid
Over the years, movies and TV have helped this concept along with visuals like this depiction (below) of an autistic boy in the Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising — a kid who spends a lot of his time looking like this:
It’s understandable that television shows and movies would perpetuate the notion that people many with autism will never meet a gaze, because (a) it makes the character more obviously “different” onscreen, and (b) they are probably taking their cues from government research and university studies.
But “many” is not “all” — nor even necessarily “most.”
The pluses and minuses of labels
Even as a baby, Quinn was never one to shy from eye contact, which is probably part of the reason we were a little late to realize that he was autistic. I know we aren’t the only parents who missed an early diagnosis because we were looking for obvious signs rather than more subtle clues.
And therein lies the rub: As much as I wish everyone could easily recognize the signs of autism, that will always be tough, because there really is no such thing as “typical” autism. The autistic mind is complex, highly-individualized, multi-faceted, surprising, and often wondrously “different.”
But as such, labeling autistic behaviors so specifically might actually be harming some of the very people who need our help.
When parents don’t see some of the more common signs of autism — such as unusual speech patterns, hand flapping and, yes, that lack of eye contact — they may not be compelled to get their son or daughter evaluated. But for such an assessment, sooner is better. A formal diagnosis can lead to a better understanding of an autistic child’s needs, and it’s an important first step in getting the support necessary to help him or her reach full potential.
Let it also be said: In my view, “full potential” doesn’t mean assimilating all of the neurotypical behaviors — trying to act like autism doesn’t exist. It’s more about learning ways to bridge the gap between people with autism and without, while allowing each person on the spectrum to maintain a sense of individuality.
Why is looking at someone else in the eyes difficult? Many people on the spectrum have explained (verbally or otherwise) that the sensory input from “eye looking” can be overwhelming. Others just don’t want to bother, saying it seems like a pointless social construct.
But for typical folk, a direct gaze is considered important because its an acknowledgement that we’re being seen and heard. Many teachers, parents and therapists will encourage direct eye contact.
Some people with autism can also these learned skills to their advantage. For instance, now that Quinn’s older, when he wants to get my attention, he has no problem using a hand to gently turn my face to his so I will look him in the eye (as he did just a second ago while I was typing this sentence).
Of course, I don’t think that my son’s affinity for eye contact with close family means he’s better than or less autistic than other people on the spectrum. I also can’t take too much credit. Maybe our early bond helped encourage that connection… or maybe the bond itself was helped along by the fact that he appreciated that kind of contact.
Regardless of its origin, I won’t pretend I’m not incredibly grateful for it. Instead of a gaze off into the distance, I get to see this:
I realize that Quinn represents a case study of one, and that’s exactly as it should be — but there are undoubtedly thousands of others who share this trait.
So the next time you hear, “people with autism don’t make eye contact,” you now have evidence to the contrary: Some autistic people can and will make eye contact of their own accord.
And such diversity — that unique combination of traits — is part of the beauty and mystery of what we call autism.