JUL 01, 2017 1:32 PM PDT

Why Eye Contact is Difficult for People with Autism

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Eye contact is an important aspect of verbal communication. Yet, for some people with autism, the act of making eye contact is exceedingly difficult, and these people tend to avoid looking directly at another person in the eye. But this is not because people with autism are disinterested or indifferent. Rather, a new research suggests that avoiding eye contact is a stress coping mechanism.

"Contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern," said Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani, a study co-author. "Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain."

In short, eye contact causes quite severe distress in people with autism. Paradoxically, they look away to actually engage in the conversation because breaking eye contact relieves the anxiety.

"To me, eye contact feels like I'm being stared at, like I'm being scrutinized and judged. It makes me uncomfortable because I feel like I'm under immense pressure, and the tension builds and builds until finally I have to look away. It feels almost confrontational, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It's just too much pressure, and I can't keep eye contact for very long unless it's with someone I trust... But despite how my eyes may wander, or if I'm even looking in another direction, make no mistake; I am still listening, and I am still interested in what you have to say," said Emma Wozny, describing to The Mighty why eye contact is hard for her, a person with autism.
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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