One of the markers of autism is a person’s aversion to eye contact. The eyes are an important barometer of emotion when we interact with others. The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley touches on the subject. Researchers believe that this seemingly anti-social behavior is rooted in complex brain processes, the misinterpretation of visual cues and functional coping mechanisms.
People on spectrum have described looking into someone’s eyes as a terrifying experience. Davidson and his team have conducted fMRI studies to discover the inner working of the brain of subjects while processing visual cues. It turns out that the amygdala (fear and anxiety center of the brain) is bigger in children with autism. He states in his book that: “The fact that amygdala activity is elevated when autistic children look at faces—even for a few fractions of a second, as in this experiment—suggests that doing so makes them profoundly uncomfortable, even fearful, and that when they look into someone’s eyes their brains and bodies are flooded with messages that they interpret as threatening. Only by looking away can they stop this onslaught.”He also points to the fact that when the subject looks away, then the amygdala activity decreases. What we interpret as an anti-social behavior is really a calming strategy that has been reinforced over time.
There’s a strong heredity factor in autism. Often entire families are studied to help understand this complex disorder. One study looked at eye tracking in the siblings of children with autism, who themselves were not on the spectrum. Interestingly enough, these children showed abnormal tracking patterns as well. Even though they did not avert their gaze, fMRI revealed that their amygdala activity was heightened when they looked at faces. Normally developing children do not show the same abnormal eye tracking patterns and amygdala response. This points to a wide range of function when it comes to social interaction competency. Richard Davidson points out that in the population at large there are people who avert their gaze when dealing with others and yet don’t fall on the spectrum. They might be called socially phobic or shy instead.
Gaze aversion is not always used to avoid unpleasant fear-inducing stimuli. Another study from Northumbria University, showed that children on the autism spectrum also use gaze aversion as a means to think and analyze material. In fact, this strategy is used by all people as a tool to retrieve memories. This actually makes our answers more accurate. Professor Doherty-Sneddon, who conducted this study, says that: “Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”
All this information is a good reminder, that when we (parents, caregivers, therapists and teachers) work with kids to help normalize their social interactions, we need to be aware of the role that gaze aversion might play for a child in that moment. Some children use it as a coping strategy for dealing with an overwhelming stimuli or as a functional strategy to process and retrieve information. Any treatment approach, therefore, should respect where the child is at developmentally.
Floortime Developmental Individual Difference Relationship-based model (DIR) is an excellent approach to increasing communication and social interactions. This model of therapy not only meets the child where he is at developmentally but also works with the child’s emotions and motivations to achieve better communication as well as social interaction. For more information on how Floortime DIR can help your child improve his/her social interactions, please contact the Child Development Institute.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way you Think, Feel and Live—and How You Can Change Them By Richard J Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley