Breaking Eye Contact... More There... Than Meets The Eye!!!
Look At Me!!!... "Looking Through You" And "Blank Stares" As Coping Mechanisms!
When it came to eye contact in the autistic child, many a parent would attest to the fact that maintaining eye contact with an autistic child was a difficult task indeed.
Autistic children had issues with vision and many seemed to be helped by enzymes and cod liver oil (use only a brand that has been tested for heavy metal content... check with manufacturers). Most parents on message discussion boards seemed comfortable with a brand called Nordic Naturals, but, again, I advised all parents to do their homework… and check each time you buy a product as they can change over time. The website for this particular company was: http://www.nordicnaturals.com/consumer/products_codliver.html.
Zachary recently experienced such a negative reaction to cod liver oil that I will never again give him any cod liver oil. I encouraged all parents to read the account of what I believed to be a reaction to cod liver oil, and the possible mercury it contained, on my website: http://www.autismhelpforyou.com. The pictures I provided of this reaction would truly be an eye opener, and “jaw-dropper” for all parents. The brand I had was purchased from a local health food store and was made by a company whose website stated the oil was indeed tested for heavy metals. Zachary's reaction was so severe, however, that I have decided to have the bottle's contents tested (results will be posted on my website once I get them). I encouraged all parents to read my section on our personal experience with Cod Liver Oil and to be aware of what I believed was a very real and serious issue for children with autism.
Note: The particular bottle I had, I had used in the past and was about half way through it. Previously, Zachary had been fine with me rubbing the contents of this bottle on him. I had seen no reaction to it in the past. I wondered, however, if the fact that I was on the “last half” of the bottle was the reason he reacted so badly… I suspect that if his reaction was as a result of mercury or heavy metal content in that bottle, that the “last half” would most likely contain the bulk of these metals as they settled to the bottom. Although the manufacturer’s website indicated their products were tested for heavy metal content, I later discovered that often, this testing was done by “third parties”. That could be an issue in and of itself too! All this was just a theory, but certainly one that would explain why this happened. I just could not in my heart attribute this reaction to anything other than the cod liver oil! Time – and testing - would tell! If I was wrong in this conclusion, I had no problem with admitting that, but for now, this was my “best guess” as to what had happened to my son – and I was now a very observant mother!
In the past, I had used cold liver oil because the vitamin A in cod liver oil helped remove issues with "sideways glances" while enzymes seemed to help many, many children, including Zachary, give better eye contact.
As with so many other issues with "the senses", however, I truly believed that in terms of breaking eye contact, there was more here than met the eye!
What continued to puzzle me for a long time was the fact that even with things to physically help restore the functioning of the eyes (i.e., the cod liver oil I had used in the past and possibly the enzymes), I still felt Zachary had great difficulty maintaining eye contact. He had made some progress, but then, he always seemed to slip back somewhat. I knew it was not that he could not physically look at me. There were plenty of glances into each other’s eyes that I had so cherished. So, if it was not completely a physical issue, that the "capability" to make eye contact was indeed there, then what was it? Why did Zachary so regularly and so completely want to avoid eye contact so often?
It did not take me very long to understand this behavior when I considered it in terms of issues with "partiality". Breaking eye contact was simply another coping mechanism for the autistic child. If you think about this in terms of the autistic child's inability to deal with the partial and to properly process information from sensory input... again, it all made perfect sense.
For example, the act itself of looking someone in the eyes involved "looking at 2 eyes"... that in itself was difficult for the autistic child since he could not deal with "partials" ... and the 2 eyes were simply 2 parts of the face... that in itself was a problem for the autistic child and was enough to make him want to break eye contact. But, the "part" that I had missed for so long when it came to eye contact was the fact that breaking it... with anything...a person or object… was also a coping mechanism for the autistic child. The child broke eye contact with anything that was "partial" or offended him...in the sense that it had not yet been “decoded”… be that his mother's eyes or a book. Not able to deal with the "pages"... the "parts of the whole book", the child simply chose not to focus on a particular page, but rather, often simply turned all the pages quickly, shut the book and tried to run away!
I had started to pay more attention to this issue of eye contact recently. I believed it was important to label each eye for the child... the left eye and the right eye. I believed it may also help to say that: "the left eye is to see things on the left" and "the right eye is to see things on the right"... and "both eyes are used to see everything - together". Again the use of labels was critical and for the autistic child, these labels had to be very, very specific when first explaining exactly how "parts" fit together to form "a whole". Just labeling these 2 things as "eyes" would not do it... you had to label each eye and explain its purpose. This was also true of all other body parts having a left and a right – although the eyes, given their proximity to one another and their “motion”, obviously posed a greater problem for the autistic child. See section on Motion also.
Look At Me!!!
Why "Looking Through You" And "Blank Stares" Are Simply Coping Mechanisms...
This issue with the inability to properly process partiality also explained why the autistic child always seemed to be "looking through you" rather than "at you". As with the “deaf child” who did not understand “his label”, if you think about it, when a deaf child “looks through you”, it was most likely due to the fact that he did not understand “another person’s label” either. A “person” in the child's environment was but a "part" to the "whole" ... if the child was unable to integrate "that part", "the person", then, that person was "not seen" in the sense that the child simply refused to “ignore” that sensory input of which he could make no sense. Each person, after all, came with his own physical appearance, his own voice, etc. This, combined with the desire to break eye contact because "2 eyes" - "two parts to a whole" created a stressful situation for the autistic child indeed made for a difficult task when it came to making a child "look at you".
Just as the "child" needed to have "his label", so too, did I believe, he needed to understand the labels of those around him… "the part" like "mommy" or "daddy" or "a friend" … labeling these, would greatly help the child in this area of "looking through you".
With Zachary, I found his greatest areas of difficulty involved both partiality and motion. Parts to the whole - input that involved motion - were always the most troublesome in terms of being properly perceived. See sections on Motion and Safety.
Blank stares also now made more sense. The eye, by design, needed light in order to "see", but, much of our sight was also dependent on motion. In fact, the eye itself was an object in constant motion, forever adjusting to light as it moved. In addition, the very act of "seeing" involved motion. Your eyes were not "blank stares" as they observed objects... rather, they were constantly in motion. In a normal person, to do what an autistic child did in terms of "blank stares" was a very difficult thing to do. To simply "stare" at something, without moving your eyes was indeed almost impossible to do. Yet, in the autistic child, "blank stares" were commonplace. Why was that? Why was an "activity" I considered so difficult to do - staring at one spot - something the autistic child engaged in so much? Was this simply another coping mechanism - the autistic child's attempt at doing away with motion or any other stressful situation? I truly wondered! After all, when Zachary had recently had what I believed to be a very bad reaction to cod liver oil, blank stares once again appeared... when they seemed to have previously been almost non-existent! Perhaps "focusing" in this manner was simply a way of putting all one's energy into "coping" with a particular situation, such as the stress involved in an allergic reaction! I truly wondered! Blank stares were perhaps simply the result of intense focus in trying to “break the code”… to understand how various parts fit into a whole.
So, herein was what I believed was the critical issue with eye contact... the fact that the autistic child used "breaking eye contact" and “blank stares” as actual coping mechanisms to not have to deal with what was perceived as "stressful" - if you did not physically see the "parts" you could not make sense of, then as the saying goes: "out of sight, out of mind"... and stress levels were thus greatly reduced for the child. In my opinion, there was something else to "blank stares" though... the intense focus in autistic children when giving "blank stares" made me believe they were somehow attempting to "retrieve information" to cope with the situation at hand.
Eye contact - something so critical in teaching, yet so difficult for the autistic child!
So, what was the answer? Not surprisingly, again, I believed labeling was key in helping with overall issues of breaking eye contact as this related to the autistic child's coping strategy.
I, personally, had recently spent more time with Zachary on this specific issue. I decided to label everything for him when it came to "his eyes". What I decided to do was to not only label each eye as "this is your left eye" and "this is your right eye", but to also physically show him the purpose of each eye. Therefore, I covered his left eye, for example, and said, "your left eye is to see on the left... if I hide it, you can’t see on the left". As I did this, I positioned myself out of his line of sight for the left eye so that he could no longer see me. I then did the same thing with his right eye. Then, I finished by uncovering his eyes one at a time and saying: "left eye plus right eye means I can see everything". After doing this a couple of times, I could tell Zachary understood the purpose of having a "left" and a "right" eye. In a very short time, I could already see that this helped him to better tolerate the "parts" (the eyes) to the whole (the face) and I was hoping that this would also help with his issues with eye contact in general... that he would come to understand that he needed both eyes for a reason... to see everything. :o)
The autistic child needed to be a visual learner when the visuals "did not offend", but perhaps needed to be an auditory learner as well, in instances where the visuals were just too much to cope with.
So, how do you maintain eye contact on those objects such as the pages of a book that a child needed to focus on to learn? The key may be in drawing attention to the "ordered" parts... perhaps the numbers on the page - the child may then be able to proceed more easily. Counting was a coping mechanism the autistic child generally loved... thus, it may be that simply drawing attention to page numbers, showing the pages "as parts to the whole book" would suffice.
Perhaps we needed books that were labeled showing the parts and the whole for the child... so that instead of just one page number at the bottom of the page, you had something like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
with more of a "whole" provided by counting, and yet the current page number, 4, showed more brightly to show "this" was the current page and that we had more to go. I tended to think such visuals would help the autistic child want to “keep going” through the entire task of reading a book due to his desire to “complete the task” and get to “10”.
I encouraged any parent who has "found a trick" to maintaining eye contact with both people and things to share their insights by sending me an email via my website, http://www.autismhelpforyou.com. I truly believed parents held within them observations and techniques, perhaps even unknowingly, that were surely key to further removing the shackles of autism. Perhaps as more parents came to understand autism in terms of the inability to properly process the whole without first understanding the partial, many more "tricks to the trade" could be uncovered by parents in order that, together, we may help as many children as possible with so many issues. :o)
Given eye contact was so critical to learning, this was certainly one of many areas where I did believe that behavior therapy could be necessary provided the therapist understood these issues with partiality and the inability to properly integrate information from the senses! Simply teaching eye contact with a therapist saying: “look at me” would not be enough... you had to teach the “parts” to why eye contact was done, and to teach eye contact with "things" too... books, papers, blackboards, objects of any kind necessary in teaching.
Behavior therapy now became much more necessary for these children because the key was to teach each child how to go about integrating all aspects of his life for himself… to teach that child the necessary means by which they could themselves decode their world – a huge task indeed!
To see "other things" I did to help Zachary increase his eye contact, please refer to my section called "Exercises I Do At Home".