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Eyes Not Necessarily the Window to the Soul for People with Autism

Posted by Tilly Stevens on June 21, 2017 at 4:57 PM

young-boy-in-grass2.jpgIt is a common understanding that individuals with autism will not, or do not like to look others in the eye. This can be distressing and even hurtful to those who love and care for such individuals.

This tendency to avoid eye contact has led to the conception that people with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) are ‘uncaring’ or can’t engage emotionally.

However new research shows that this may be a misconception. Those with ASD may be avoiding eye contact because it is physically uncomfortable to them, not because they do not want to engage with others.

Instead, it is likely that any lack of emotional development or understanding is actually a symptom of this discomfort. Autistic individuals often want (or need) to avoid eye contact and thereby may miss a lot of the emotional development encountered by reacting to facial expressions.  This then ‘stunts’ their emotional development and abilities.

Eye Contact Physically Uncomfortable

Researchers from Athinoula A. Martinos entre for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, USA have been able to track the physical experiences of some autistic people when they are asked to view faces and eyes specifically.

It seems that the part of the brain responsible for “tracking” faces and emotional perceptions (the subcortical system) may be over-stimulated in autistic individuals. So much so that some describe it as “burning” or being stressful and uncomfortable. 

There is an over-activation of signaling networks which both stimulate and relax this part of the brain. The over-action means this part of the brain is then overloaded, making eye contact an extremely uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing experience for autistic people.

It’s physical, not emotional 

So, these individuals may be avoiding your eyes because it makes them physically uncomfortable, not because they don’t care.

This may be of some comfort for those living or working with people suffering from Autism, but can this be helped? Harvard Medical School professor and head researcher Nouchine Hadjikhani says –

“The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioural therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them”

Can it be helped?

Hadjikhani recommends a ‘slow habituation to eye contact’ i.e. that these individuals be slowly and gently introduced to looking at someone’s face and then eyes. Through this, their brains may be trained almost like a muscle and eventually these people with autism may be able to look at others more comfortably.

Another benefit of this approach would be that emotional development and understanding may be improved. This is because they will no longer miss the emotional ‘signals’ and information conveyed through facial expressions, thus improving their ability to empathise and relate to others.

Bridging the gap

This research has huge implications for understanding just what autistic people experience in their daily lives. Can you imagine what it would be like if it actually physically hurt to look someone in the eyes?

The painful and perhaps lonely existence for some of these people may have been revealed through this research. However, it is not all doom and gloom.

By understanding this rather ground-breaking idea, we can adjust our expectations and, perhaps most importantly, reactions to autistic individuals. Becoming hurt or maybe frustrated by this behaviour has been revealed to be an unnecessary and inappropriate response. Instead, helping these people to connect emotionally in another way or to slowly be able to in the ‘traditional’ method may be the way to go.

So it’s not because they don’t care! It’s just that emotional understanding and feeling operates a bit differently in individuals with ASD. Now that we are starting to understand this, perhaps we will be able to find a way to satisfy that need within all people to connect with others.

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Topics: Autism

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