Friday, May 9, 2008

Social Skills Basics: Should We Teach Eye Contact?

Eye contact can be a tricky issue for some people. When to look someone in the eye, when to look away, does lack of eye contact indicate unfriendliness, does eye contact that too lengthy indicate a threat? A lot gets expressed and read into a seemingly simple gesture. The confusion gets compounded by the fact that different cultures have different rules for eye contact, and the rules within families can be different than those for friends, acquaintances or strangers. What’s praised as “paying attention” for some cultures is then criticized in others as “not being respectful.” Many people struggle with reading social cues. For example, a recent study from Indiana University and Yale pointed out how frequently male and female students mistook friendliness for sexual interest and vice versa. (See for a brief article on the study.)

Kids with social skills issues, such as those with autistic spectrum disorders, Asperger’s Syndrome, and some kids with ADHD are frequently instructed in the “rules” about eye contact. As a therapist, I think it’s important to use great care with this issue. There are reasons the neurotypical world uses eye contact: as an indication of openness, interest, paying attention, as well as to convey less friendly messages such as boredom or dominance. At the same time, there are plenty of good reasons why an individual may not be comfortable using the standard rules of eye contact. Just go online and read some of the blogs from adults with Asperger’s syndrome and you’ll find great discussions about how eye contact can feel threatening, distracting, or overwhelming.

For parents who aren’t sure what to do for their kids, I think the individual approach is best. Try talking to your child about it. See if you can figure out together if there are any problems due to eye contact or the lack of eye contact. Then it can be easier to come up with solutions. If your child can’t figure out when others have lost interest in his conversation, then learning to do an eye contact check-in may suddenly seem worthwhile, instead of an arbitrary rule made up by the neurotypical world. If your child is concerned with making friends but overwhelmed with the intimacy of eye contact, then learning to fake it may make sense. Practicing for a job interview or date may motivate some people.

Th real key is that the focus, for this and any other social skill, should be finding solutions to problems and issues, not on teaching children complicated sets of rules for how to act like everybody else.

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