There are times when my son just stares off blankly into space. He is on the autism spectrum. While he is usually into everything, occasionally, when he calms down and stops for a second, he does what some will call an autistic stare. But why does he do that?
Why does someone who insists on jumping and running most of the time and constantly eating just stop everything and stare blankly? It’s already difficult to get him to respond to his name at the best of times, but what causes it to be impossible to get a response from his direct gaze? How can we have a better understanding of the autism stare?
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What Is the Autism Stare?
A study published by the National Library of Medicine found it is common for children with an autism spectrum disorder to “space out” and start staring blankly. But what is happening during those times?
As we all know, sight is one of the five senses. Sensory processing issues can be present in autistic people, but how those issues affect autistic children varies significantly from person to person.
My child will often develop an autistic stare when he is in sensory overload. Sometimes, the autistic stare will precede a meltdown where he begins throwing himself on the ground. Other times, the stare is the only reaction to the sensory overload.
During this timeframe, making eye contact with my son is almost impossible. While he won’t actively avoid eye contact, he won’t respond if you seek eye contact.
Most of the time, he’s okay, but given he also has an epilepsy diagnosis, the autistic stare can be some of the scariest moments for us as parents.
Sensory processing issues are not always connected to the autistic stare. Still, if your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and you’d like to know more, Autism Parenting Magazine has covered sensory processing issues.
A Neurological Look at the Autistic Stare
Staring spells are “absence seizures” or “non-epileptic spells.” An absence seizure is when a child’s brain activity resembles that of a seizure, but they have no physical symptoms.
Meanwhile, a non-epileptic spell is more commonly known as daydreaming. While the non-epileptic spells were more common, researchers still recommended regular clinical testing to help determine which subcategory best describes the child’s actions.
During a study on the autistic stare, researchers found 22 out of 140 participants were suffering from absence seizures while the other 118 were experiencing a non-epileptic spell.
The researchers determined the length of the autistic stare, the number of staring spells experienced in one week, and if the person responded to someone speaking to them all affected if it was an absence seizure or non-epileptic spell.
When my child is staring blankly, and his facial features have that almost deadpan expression, it can be difficult to put aside my misconceptions about him. My son is nonverbal and can’t tell me what happened that led to his autistic stare.
While I can look at the events beforehand and use deductive reasoning to figure out if it was caused by sensory overload or some other trigger, that still requires me to get out of my own way.
It can be hard when my child is staring into space and not making eye contact. However, I can’t presume anything at that moment. If he isn’t responding, I have to rely on his body language to decipher what I need to do.
My son has an epilepsy diagnosis on top of an autism diagnosis and has been hospitalized for seizures in the past. When an autism stare happens, I have to make sure there is no obvious seizure activity.
My wife says one of the scariest moments of her life was seeing him stare past her while he lay in his bed on the day he had a massive seizure. That day might not have been an autistic stare, but we’ve seen that stare again in the years since.
While it’s disconcerting not knowing if he is suffering an absence seizure or having a non-epileptic spell, when he comes out of that autistic stare, he’s the same boy he was moments before the stare started.
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Fostering Understanding and Inclusion
The autism stare is real, but what causes it varies for each autistic person. Still, many scientists say the autistic stare can be an early sign of autism, and they are looking for it more as a sign of diagnosis.
Most people will never know the fear of seeing their child in an autistic stare and not knowing if it’s something serious or if they are just daydreaming like a neurotypical child might.
Still, we, as parents of autistic children, must help foster understanding and inclusion. Autism has enough misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding it. Our loved ones don’t deserve to have another aspect of their lives fall victim to those misconceptions and stereotypes.
Q: Is staring a form of autism?
A: Staring is not a form of autism. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors, but staring alone is not indicative of autism.
Q: Why do kids with autism stare?
A: Children with autism may use prolonged staring to self-regulate or cope with sensory overload, finding comfort in repetitive visual stimuli. It can also manifest social communication challenges, as they may struggle with typical eye contact or social engagement.
Q: Do autistic kids look at you?
A: Difficulty maintaining eye contact is common among individuals with autism, but it’s important to note that the absence of eye contact does not necessarily indicate autism in every case. Various factors can contribute to differences in eye contact behavior.
Q: Why do children with autism stare at their hands?
A: Children with autism may stare at their hands because of sensory stimulation or as a way to self-soothe in overwhelming situations. It can be a comforting behavior to regulate their sensory experiences.
Staring spells in children with autism spectrum disorder: A clinical dilemma – PubMed (nih.gov)
Staring Spells: How to Distinguish Epileptic Seizures from Nonepileptic Staring – PubMed (nih.gov)
Sensory Processing in Autism: A Review of Neurophysiologic Findings