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Look at Me! Are you Listening? - Back off the Eye Contact and Focus on the Connection

Today's post is again inspired by a tweet I stumbled upon.

Early on in my graduate school education, I was taught various ways to encourage eye contact. Monkey stickers on my forehead, sticker reinforcement charts, visual prompts, verbal cues and praise... numerous ways. Deep down, I could tell this wasn't right.

Later on in my career, I overheard a mentor and colleague of mine say, "we don't really need to focus on eye contact." My ears perked up and I stepped in her office to chat. She simply stated to me "Eye contact isn't all that it's cracked up to be. He could be looking at me and still not listening. He could be looking out the window AND listening to me better. What's more important?"

Finally, someone confirmed what my gut had always told me. Other SLP's, BCBA's, teachers, parents, etc. all create these goals with eye contact as if it's some golden measure of joint attention. Initially and naively, I went along with it. Slowly, I learned better.

Here's the real kicker to my post though, notice who I never asked in regards to this?

Children and adults with autism.

Who's most greatly impacted by the goals, expectations and demands we put on them?

Children and adults with autism.

Ugh. I want to kick myself.

Tonight, it showed up on my Twitter. A lovely and straight forward account of how all these years of writing "Johnny will maintain eye contact with no more than 2 prompts over 15 minutes..." affects Johnny.

Here are some of the responses that hit me hardest.

It varied from not much pain, just draining...

to painful and uncomfortable...

and deeply intimate, involving full trust.

I strongly implore you to read the entire threat here. It further deepened my opinion in eye contact and focusing instead on building a compassionate, supportive relationship. Creating an engaged interaction should be every therapist and teacher's goal, as this is where learning occurs. Building a co-regulated and loving bond should (and, I'm sure, is) every parents' motivation. Please, just keep these opinions in mind when you're attempting to teach pragmatic rules and expectations.

What are your thoughts on eye contact and joint attention? Please share them in the comments below!

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