In our Western culture we look people in the eye to show respect. However, this simple gesture is not an easy one for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a low-level type of autism.
Children with Asperger’s typically have normal language and intellectual development. They may have large vocabularies and a fine ability to organize and understand material objects.
Yet, they avoid eye contact during conversations because visual interference is distracting to them.
Most people can internally mirror facial expressions and tone of voice to improve their understanding of what a speaker intends to communicate. For someone with Asperger’s, however, mirroring—or reading emotional states—is difficult. They have difficulty reading people’s feelings through body language and facial expressions and may not recognize subtle differences in speech tone that alter the meaning of others’ speech. Thus, they often tend to miss social cues.
Yet, like most people, a person with Asperger’s wants to be liked and to have friends. When they feel rejected for being odd and lacking the ability to connect easily, they feel alone and hurt.
So when you see a child or an adult who doesn’t look you in the eye, don’t assume they are being disrespectful. Be compassionate and imagine being in their shoes.
Even if a child does not have Asperger’s, but is simply shy or thinking about other things, the effect of demanding that he or she look at you only increases the child’s desire to withdraw. It’s better to kindly explain to the child that it’s helpful in this culture to occasionally glance at people in a conversation because it generally signifies respect. After that, kindness and acceptance are the best way to relate to those with Asperger’s as well as those who are merely shy.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Reference: John Elder Robison’s “Look me in the eye: my life with Asperger’s.”