Autism Counselling

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The Myth Of Eye Contact

So ahead of my forthcoming Book on Counselling clients on the Autism Spectrum I wanted to share few blogs taken from its content. The first part of my book will cover the Myths of Autism, the wrong belief that we have as a society about Autism which can affect how we work with this group of clients and affects the progress of the therapy.

I am not on the Autism Spectrum and will never pretend to know what it is like. My aim here is to tell other counsellors of my observation through 20 years of personal and professional experience of Autism. Also to be noted, is that these are generalisations. Things that seem to come back in the counselling room a lot. They may not apply to all individuals, and each client on the Autism Spectrum needs to be treated independently as it should be with any client.

So here is another myth.

Autism and eye contact

Would you believe that even in 2020 as I am writing this book, some people are denied a diagnosis because of this, because they can give perfectly timed eye contact. I have seen reports myself brought to me by clients so I promise you it’s true !

So let’s put things straight a little bit here.

So yes, lack of eye contact is an autistic trait but it certainly doesn’t apply to everybody on the spectrum. 

Thinking of my present caseload I would say the number of clients who give eye contact and the ones who don’t is about 50/50. I will explain why somebody on the Autism spectrum may not be able to give eye contact in a moment but first let’s focus on the ones who do.

Many clients will have some sensory difficulty, touch, smell, noise, lights. Some will not affect sight. Therefore some clients may struggle with loud noises but will be absolutely fine maintaining eye contact.

The other thing you may find, and that is especially true with female on the spectrum, many will have practice very hard to be able to do it. I cannot explain enough how difficult it is to force yourself to do something because you know it isn’t acceptable in society to do what is natural to you. Imagine the opposite. That I say to you that from the next minute you will not look at somebody while talking to them. Difficult isn’t it ? Because that’s what you naturally do. As a neurotypical, eye contact means creating a connection.

You may find many clients will be concern that you find them rude for looking away but…under no circumstances should you insist on eye contact. And here’s why.

Oliver never gives eye contact. As a mother I had to understand why. I made the usual mistake to think it was because he was not listening or was defiant. Please bear in mind that Ollie was diagnosed over twenty years ago and we have more knowledge now of Autism. Still a long way to go but at least there is a bit more understanding. Through doing some reading and  then with working with client with Autism here what I discovered.

Very often, the avoidance of eye contact happens because it can be overwhelming to focus on too many things at once. As a neurotypical, we forget all the different things involved in a conversation. Take a minute to observe what happens. Not only there is making sense of the words but there is also facial expression to work out, body language, tone of voice, knowing when to answer back, thinking of what to say. If you are in a place other than your house there may be smells, noises, lights. Bear in mind that the senses of people on the spectrum are usually a lot more sensitive so noises can come across as a hundred time louder, smells stronger. Are you with me ? Have you realised now how difficult, how much concentration it can take for somebody on the spectrum just to hold a normal conversation.

So by taking away eye contact it reduces some of the things to concentrate on. You don’t have to work out facial expression anymore, or notice body language. Ones can concentrate on the actual words and tone of voice. So you see, to a Neurotypical person, the Autistic individual can come across as not listening when it fact it is the opposite. You clients may not give eye contact so that they CAN hear you and really concentrate fully on what you are saying.

I do understand that it can be confusing and disconcerting for a Neurotypical counsellor to have a client who looks away all the time but your Autistic client is trying their best and will appreciate your understanding. The relief of knowing they are understood and that they are ‘allowed’ to do what they need to will be easy to see.

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