In the animal kingdom, many animals will avoid making eye contact unless it is to challenge a rival for food, a mate, or territory. However, eye contact serves a different purpose for humans. For people, eye contact is frequently used as part of conversing with other people. It lets a person know that you are focusing on them. This may seem like a simple task for someone who is neurotypical. It is a stressful one for someone on the spectrum because it takes a greater amount of concentration to make eye contact.
In the recesses of my memory, I can hear my mother's voice saying "Eyes on me, eyes on me." whenever I looked away from her. She would back this up with using her finger tips to attract my attention back to her face. This tactic was useful for me growing up because it allowed me to maintain my focus while keeping eye contact the whole time. One of the reasons for the success of this tactic was my age. I was still young enough to not be overwhelmed from other factors. It also helped that I trusted my mom and she was very patient with me. As a result of this practice, I am no longer bothered by making eye contact.
This exercise can be best utilized in a quiet environment with minimal distractions. You could ask a trusted friend or family member. For a discussion, talk about a topic that both yourself and your partner are interested in. Discussing a topic that is mutually interesting could help make it easier to maintain eye contact. If it is too stressful to use a general conversation, you can use a written script to read. This script could be from a work that you are interested in such as a play or a novel. As long as it is a topic that both yourself and your partner can enjoy together.
Before the exercise starts, work out a gentle reminder you wish your partner to use to help redirect your eye contact. These reminders could be a visual cue, verbal reminder, or a combination. Figure out which one will work the best for you. If eye contact is something that is a big struggle, set short time periods to practice before moving on for longer conversations. Also discuss either how long or how frequently you want them to remind you. This is a gentle exercise, if you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, let your partner know that you want to stop.
However, if you are not comfortable with asking a person, you could practice with yourself either in the mirror or with a photo. This may be a little more stressful since it becomes your responsibility to remind yourself. The purpose is to gradually improve maintaining eye contact without taking away your focus.
If you are a parent of a child who is autistic, it may help to encourage positive reinforcement when they do manage to make eye contact. Positive reinforcement could help make eye contact less stressful for the child. Patience and understanding will be crucial for this to be successful. Eye contact will be difficult because it will take a lot of focus for your child to maintain. When they start getting agitated, it would be best to stop the exercise until they are calmer again. It is important to remember that the goal of this exercise is not to force them into improving their eye contact, but a gradual growth.
This is not an exercise that encourages masking either. If improving eye contact is a personal goal, this may be a possible exercise to try out. It can be frustrating trying to balance focus between making eye contact and listening to the speaker. Autism effects everyone differently. If this exercise is causing anxiety for you, then I do not recommend continuing. The goal is to improve eye contact in a gradual, non-stressful exercise.
The Empathetic Aspie is a supportive community for people on the autistic spectrum and allies. I encourage readers to share their experiences in the comments. Discuss in the comments below about aspects of the exercise that worked or did not work. By sharing our experiences together, we can create a solid foundation for support and friendships.