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Rolling Eyes Upward and Autism: Is There a Link?

February 23, 2024

Have you ever noticed your child’s eyes rolling upward? If your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it can be jarring to see these eye movements. It can lead to many questions about whether this behavior is out of the ordinary and if there’s a connection between rolling eyes upward and autism.

Eye rolling can sometimes be an example of your child visually stimming. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders should know eye rolling is not an uncommon trait, but there are things you can do to help them recognize why it may not be well-received by others and help them manage it.

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How commonly do children with autism roll their eyes upwards?

Eye rolling is not an exclusively autistic behavior. Your child with autism spectrum disorder may be eye-rolling for a reason connected to autism, or there may be another cause. Still, the sometimes odd behavior can be common depending on the frequency and other factors.

For children with autism spectrum disorders, the research found eye-rolling to be more common. This may be due to sensory processing issues or social interactions. Of course, the frequency with which a child rolls their eyes varies from person to person and can’t be identified in a simplistic manner.

Why do children with autism roll their eyes?

Children with autism spectrum disorder often will stim. Stimming is a series of repetitive behaviors the child uses to soothe themselves. These include flapping fingers and arms, head banging, or eye movements. Eye rolling could be a visual stimming behavior for individuals with autism.

There can be many other causes for children on the autism spectrum to roll their eyes. Some of these include:

  • sensory sensitivities
  • communication difficulties
  • emotional regulation
  • challenges with social interactions
  • issues with eye movement

Sensory sensitivities

Children with autism spectrum disorder are more prone to sensory sensitivities and sensory overload. If something is too bright, too loud, or an environment is too crowded, it can affect the child’s eye movements. Visual stimming, like rapid eye movements and eye-rolling, can help children with autism regulate their sensory experience.

Communication difficulties

Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with communication. Many with autism engage in eye-rolling and poor eye contact. This is because neurotypical communication can make them uncomfortable.

Eye rolling may also serve as a nonverbal cue for these children to convey emotion. There may also not be a source of irritation but just something the child with autism does.

A boy rolling his eyes upward

Emotional regulation

Children with autism spectrum disorder experience emotions just like neurotypical children but may struggle with emotional regulation. While a neurotypical child may use eye-rolling to convey boredom or annoyance, these eye movements may convey more for a child with autism.

Eye rolling may be an emotional response, a way to convey anxiety, or an attempt at self-soothing. This visual stimming may be their way of releasing tension.

Social interactions

Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder often have trouble reading social cues. They may not understand that eye-rolling can be seen as disrespectful. That can lead to challenging social interactions as the child may roll their eyes because they aren’t comprehending the situation.

Issues with eye movement

Studies show that people with autism often have less precise eye movements, sometimes causing their eyes to roll. These difficulties are linked to irregularities in their eye movements, especially in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Managing your child’s eye-rolling behaviors

While a child with autism spectrum disorder may not view eye rolling as an issue, others who are unaware of the child’s diagnosis may find it to be disrespectful. However, there are ways to manage and understand the eye movements in autistic children. These include:

  • Communication support – Encourage other forms of communication that don’t require eye contact and help create an environment for autistic children to feel more comfortable.
  • Sensory management – Sensory sensitivities can trigger eye movements, so providing a sensory-friendly environment that factors in lights and noise can lead to less eye-rolling.
  • Social skills training – Helping children with autism spectrum disorder recognize social cues can enhance appropriate responses and reduce the amount of eye-rolling.
  • Emotional regulation techniques – Addressing emotional regulation issues can help children with coping strategies and relieve emotional distress that may trigger rapid eye movements.
  • Positive reinforcement – If your child on the autism spectrum begins demonstrating a reduction in eye-rolling, you should praise them for the behavior. Positive reinforcement can help children with autism engage in less eye-rolling moving forward.

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Be your child’s biggest supporter

Eye rolling is not uncommon, and it is not something that has to be strongly discouraged. However, working with your child with autism, you can help them reduce their eye movements so that it doesn’t appear to be disrespectful.

You don’t want to stop them if it’s visual stimming for self-soothing purposes. But you can make their environment better, so they don’t need to stim quite as often. Be there for them and help your children with autism engage with others.

FAQs

Q: Why does my autistic child roll his eyes?

A: There are many potential causes for eye-rolling in children with autism. These include abnormalities with eye movement, social interactions, sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and emotional regulation.

Q: What are unusual eye movements in autism?

A: Rapid eye movements like eye rolling can lead to unusual eye movement patterns in children with autism. Research has also found that it can lead to crossed eyes.

Q: Does ADHD cause eye rolling?

A: Research has found a connection between ADHD and eye rolling but has not found evidence the neurodevelopmental condition caused the eye movements.

Q: What is an autistic eye gaze?

A: Autistic children may engage in poor eye contact due to eye movement patterns contributing to the autism eye gaze. It’s sometimes accompanied by a stare that can be a way of coping or self-regulating.

Q: Can autism cause staring spells?

A: Staring spells are common in children with autism. Autism does not directly cause the staring spell. However, it is a sign or symptom.

References:

Kapp, S. K., Steward, R., Crane, L., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Pellicano, E., & Russell, G. (2019). ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming. Autism, 23(7), 1782-1792.

Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 89, 2021, 101864, ISSN 1750-9467, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2021.101864

Schmitt LM, Cook EH, Sweeney JA, Mosconi MW. Saccadic eye movement abnormalities in autism spectrum disorder indicate dysfunctions in cerebellum and brainstem. Mol Autism. 2014 Sep 16;5(1):47. doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-5-47. PMID: 25400899; PMCID: PMC4233053.

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