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Why is Eye Contact Difficult for Autistic People?

April 18, 2024

Eye contact avoidance in autism is an issue that troubles many parents with children on the spectrum. Should they encourage it? How can they manage the avoidance without causing anxiety? These questions, and others like them, are often approached with a narrow, neurotypical perspective.

Society places a high value on eye contact for connecting, showing interest, and facilitating communication. However, many autistic people find eye contact challenging, as they may not perceive it as socially engaging or significant.

This article examines poor eye contact as a sign of autism, discussing the challenges children with autism face and providing advice for parents and children to manage eye contact comfortably.

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Is avoiding eye contact a sign of autism?

According to APA, reduced eye contact is a common sign of autism, often noticed early on by parents and healthcare professionals. A study found that babies who later developed autism showed less interest in making eye contact compared to typical babies as early as two months old.

This lack of interest in eye contact is thought to be one of the earliest signs of autism. Interestingly, the study also found that the more a baby’s interest in eye contact decreased during their first two years, the more difficulty they had with social interactions later on.

Another study found that children with autism might actually look at specific areas, like the eyes, for longer periods when prompted to do so. This might suggest that they don’t avoid eye contact because they can’t or don’t want to but because they don’t understand its importance.

However, it’s important to note that not all children who avoid eye contact have autism. It could be due to shyness, anxiety, hearing problems, or cultural differences. Understanding why eye contact is challenging for people with autism is still a complex question that researchers are working to unravel.

Why don’t autistic people make eye contact?

Some people think that children with autism avoid looking into others’ eyes because they find it uncomfortable, while others think they simply don’t see it as important.

One idea, called the “gaze aversion theory,” suggests that people with autism feel anxious or threatened when they have to make eye contact. Some studies show that their brains react strongly to eye contact, which might support this theory.

Another idea, called the “gaze indifference theory,” suggests that people with autism just don’t find eye contact interesting or important. According to recent research, their brains don’t react much to eye contact.

One study found that anxiety about eye contact might develop as children with autism get older rather than being something they’re born with. This could explain why young children with autism might not seem bothered by eye contact, but older ones might avoid it.

A young girl with autism avoiding eye contact https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-eye-contact/

So, what can parents do to improve eye contact in autistic children? To help them understand the value of eye contact without causing stress, parents can focus on the child instead of worrying too much about what society expects.

How can you encourage eye contact without forcing it?

Even if we recognize and respect the child’s indifference or aversion to eye contact, society encourages eye contact to navigate social situations. Because of that, it’s important that you help the child understand the significance of eye contact and practice regularly.

Explain the significance of eye contact

Use encouraging and simple language to explain some of the basics of eye contact. Here are some things you can mention:

  • Teachers may require eye contact to ensure the child is listening or paying attention.
  • Eye contact delivers important social cues. Forget your natural understanding when explaining this to your child. They may be unaware of how a direct gaze could indicate interest, attention, or expectation
  • You could also explain eye contact’s important role in nonverbal communication. Mention how people see steady eye contact as a sign that someone is interested or engaged in a conversation.

Practice regularly in everyday situations

While your child may not grasp the significance of eye contact (especially at a young age), the behavior could be learned through practice and praise.

Start slowly, especially if your child appears hesitant. If your child manages to look somewhere in the eye region, give praise and build up to full eye contact.

Try practicing eye contact when your child is relaxed. A great time would be when they are communicating about something that interests them. If you pay attention to what they’re trying to communicate with a direct, interested gaze, you’ll be modeling the exact behavior you’re encouraging. 

When your child feels more comfortable and looks into your eyes when communicating, smile, give praise, and let them know how much you like it when they engage with you.

Help your child to understand that you hear and understand them better when they are facing you and looking into your eyes.

A great time to practice this is when they ask you for something. Get down to the child’s level, and tell them how much you love looking into their beautiful eyes.

Autism and eye contact avoidance

When we understand the probable insignificance children with autism attach to eye contact, it becomes easier to manage our expectations. With patience and understanding, eye contact can be learned and practiced.

A young child with autism who becomes aware of the social motivation behind eye contact may be inspired to acquire this skill. This may alleviate some of the anxiety many children experience later on.

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Q: Is eye stimming common in autism?

A: Yes, eye stimming, or repetitive eye movements, can be common in autism spectrum disorder. It’s a behavior some individuals use to self-regulate or self-soothe.

Q: Should you force eye contact on autistic children?

A: Forcing eye contact in autistic children can cause stress and anxiety, as some may find it uncomfortable or unimportant. It’s better to focus on understanding their individual needs and preferences rather than imposing societal expectations.

Q: Is eye contact painful for autistic individuals?

A: Eye contact can be uncomfortable for some autistic individuals, as it may induce feelings of anxiety or stress. However, not all autistic individuals find eye contact painful, as preferences vary among individuals.

Q: Why does my baby avoid eye contact?

A: Your baby might avoid eye contact because they find it uncomfortable or because they simply don’t see it as important.

Q: Do autistic babies make eye contact?

A: Autistic babies might avoid making eye contact, but the reasons behind this behavior are still debated among researchers. Some theories suggest they find it uncomfortable, while others propose they simply don’t see it as important.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).

Hadjikhani, N., Åsberg Johnels, J., Zürcher, N.R. et al. Look me in the eyes: constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism. Sci Rep 7, 3163 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-03378-5

Jones, W., & Klin, A. (2013). Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2-6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism. Nature, 504(7480), 427–431. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12715 

Moriuchi, J. M., Klin, A., & Jones, W. (2017). Mechanisms of diminished attention to eyes in autism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 174(1), 26-35.

Rapp, J. T., Cook, J. L., Nuta, R., Balagot, C., Crouchman, K., Jenkins, C., Karim, S., & Watters-Wybrow, C. (2019). Further Evaluation of a Practitioner Model for Increasing Eye Contact in Children With Autism. Behavior Modification, 43(3), 389-412. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445518758595 

Hirsch J, Zhang X, Noah JA, Dravida S, Naples A, Tiede M, et al. (2022) Neural correlates of eye contact and social function in autism spectrum disorder. PLoS ONE 17(11): e0265798. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265798 

Fonger, A.M., Malott, R.W. Using Shaping to Teach Eye Contact to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Behav Analysis Practice 12, 216–221 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-018-0245-9

Stuart, N., Whitehouse, A., Palermo, R. et al. Eye Gaze in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of Neural Evidence for the Eye Avoidance Hypothesis. J Autism Dev Disord 53, 1884–1905 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05443-z

Cañigueral R, Hamilton AFC. The Role of Eye Gaze During Natural Social Interactions in Typical and Autistic People. Front Psychol. 2019 Mar 15;10:560. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00560. PMID: 30930822; PMCID: PMC6428744. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6428744/

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