Eye contact - Are there "rules" for when to engage

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MomofThree1975
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18 May 2012, 11:34 am

Yesterday the admin for the special ed teacher came to our home and met with us and our son (he is 3). When she first tried to talk to him he was very quiet and hardly looked at her. We sat at the table and spoke for about 1.5 hours. During that time, my son colored, did his visual stim and kept interrupting me to tell me about something in his book (he is usually adamant that I pay attention to him). I sat at the head of the table and my son sat to my left and the admin sat beside him. A few times I asked him to share his crayons with the admin and he said no, but when asked to share with me, he did.

After we ended the meeting, the admin got up and I told my son to say bye to her and waved and said bye. She then told me that he was making great eye contact with her. I thought it was interesting that he almost totally ignored her for an hour and a half and then he decides it's okay to look her in the eye. On top of that, he has a tendency to talk (basically say "hi", wave and smile) to strangers and make eye contact with them. but this lady who was in our house talking to DH and I, it took some time for him to acknowledge her.

What do you think?



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18 May 2012, 11:45 am

I wish I could help you on this one:

When my son was first diagnosed (at 4) they listed eye contact as one of his strengths. I questioned them on it and what they told me sounded like it was on some special spectrum curve or something. It didn't make sense to me. His eye contact was awful, and he ignored people most of the time. I didn't push it, in case it is uncomfortable or gives him to much visual data than he can handle,; I would encourage it occasionally in the context of trying to get him to pay attention to others' facial expressions.

It is much "better" now but it still frustrates the teacher because I guess they try to ascertain comprehension of the material based on eye contact. I would guess an NT kid could fake it, so to me assuming eye contact=comprehension is going to give you false negatives and false positives all over the place.



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18 May 2012, 12:50 pm

I am not a parent but I am a 32 year old woman that is very Aspie. Before I started school, I never made eye contact with anyone at all.

Once I started school, this changed because I noticed that I could "stare down" adults if they were intimidating to me.

Now, I am a very small (62 inches tall and 105 lbs.) adult female engineer who happens to work with mostly very tall men who tend to be a bit arrogant and domineering. This eye contact skill has been very effective at giving me some control over my environment.

That being said, the intensity of my gaze is so intimidating that I seldom have to use it after working in my same office for 6 years. My supervisors call it my "fire gaze" because it is so intense.

Have any parents on this forum observed this in their little ones? The tendency to either ignore others completely or "stare them down" but nothing in between with regard to eye contact?

Thanks!



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18 May 2012, 2:06 pm

MomofThree1975 wrote:
. . . he has a tendency to talk (basically say "hi", wave and smile) to strangers and make eye contact with them. . .

I am not a parent either but I have lived life "on the Spectrum" (self-diagnosed with Asperger's).

When I was job coaching for a young man diagnosed on the spectrum (and one of the things that got me thinking I might also be on the spectrum!), I noticed that he enjoyed the act of stopping at a convenience store and saying Hello to the clerk as we were walking in. And my client was good at this skill. He did better than average (across all people) on this social interaction.

When I worked in a department store over Christmas 2010-11, I liked the happiness and the excitement of people shopping. I was not jaded like other employees. I was open if the customer wanted to engage in conversation (also with good closure skills in case in went too long). And to make the job more interesting for me, I experimented with different jokes after ringing up the sale. A joke about a list the company giving us about what holiday to wish a person on what day, whether Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah, or Happy Diwali (wrong time of year), worked with the first customer I tried it with but then was too clumsy and complicated for subsequent customers. The following end of transaction joke really worked with a number of customers: "We are also giving away free ferrets upstairs. Each hundred dollar purchase entitles the customer to one free ferret. We do ask that customers take a one-page test to make sure they know how to take care of the animal I'm just kidding." And customer's really laughed. They ate this up! Maybe about 40% of customers made a comment about ferrets smelling. Maybe about 20% made a comment that they didn't think their dogs would like the ferrets. I think the joke worked so well both because it had an edge and it was relatively good-natured, and that combo is relatively rare.

My co-workers did not like this joke, to some extent because they were anti-customer. But the bigger baseline was that they were commission sales people and I was Christmas help, moved between two different departments. They weren't going to like me very much almost no matter what the circumstances.

Working at H&R Block, I learned where to go fast ("Presidential election fund?") and where to slow down. For example, there are real negatives on their loan and bank products which I would underline in blue ink on the application and explain. If I had to do it over again, I would merely underline as if I was required to by the company and wait for the client to ask me. That is, I'd play poker a little bit. By negatives, I mean in maybe one case out of 100, the bank would take the client's entire tax refund for purposes of third party debt collection. Yeah, it's incredibly serious. Both the California attorney general and the IRS taxpayer advocate has written about this. And yeah, because of this, I'm comfortable saying that H&R Block is an unethical company. But I also felt it was a less unethical company with me working there. And when customers would storm the store, not getting their loan and not getting a straight answer on the voice mail, I learned how to look up the status of their return on my computer. And usually the status was that their return had been "accepted" by the IRS (initial step) but that the loan had been rejected. And in the spirit of openness and transparency, I'd simply show my client this screen. I mean, it is their information afterall. I usually felt that people were lucky to get me as their tax preparer.

Working at Block and another place, 1 year out of 4, I was fired, in my judgement because I begin to proactively call customers not approved for the loans instead of waiting for them to storm the store. Of course another reason was used. That means, 3 years out of 4 I wasn't fired, and I'll take those odds.

I was generally accepted by co-workers, although sometimes viewed as a little weird. I was also considered one of the go-to people as far as the computer system. One year, with some degree of admiration, the office manager said I was kind of an advocate for the underdog. I will accept the compliment. I really felt my loyalty was to my clients and my direct co-workers, and not so much to the company hierarchy.

======================

Hi, all this is kind of a long story. Yes, your son might to some degree prefer more formal interactions, and his skills are also likely to improve over time. :D



MomofThree1975
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18 May 2012, 2:07 pm

Thanks for your response. My son will make eye contact with family members. But, he seems to have this "sometimes I ignore you, sometimes I try to engage you" with strangers. For the life of me I can't figure out the rhyme and reason behind. He started saying hi to people walking by the yard so I figured he just felt safe at home. Then he started doing it at the park, Drs office, etc so that went out the door. but someone sitting right next to him he can totally ignore. We were talking to the woman and he kept trying to get my attention as if she wasn't there or as if he didn't want us paying attention to her.

I haven't seen any "stare down" from my son. He does like me to stare in his eyes and will sometimes hold my face to do it. He def knows that when I stare in his eyes he has my attention and I think that's why he wants me to look at him. When he is really "intense" with the staring, he tops it off with a long kiss. I think he might be going through that mommy love phase though.



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18 May 2012, 2:59 pm

I am a self diagnosed Aspie in my early 50s. I generally have trouble with eye contact. It feels wrong to me--like an aggressive, challenging act. Also, I tend to not want to look at people who don't approve of or like me. There have been all too many of them throughout my life. However, like AardvarkGoodSwimmer, I have at times given people the laser eyes of death look. My eye brows enhance the effect, making me look angry even when I'm not, so I have to shape them to minimize the effect. I am really not good at eye contact at all, but if I remember, I do try to at least glance at people's faces. Holding a gaze is really too uncomfortable for me though. I think it's best not to insist on kids holding a gaze, but instead have them practice frequent glancing at the speaker's face. This will show that they are paying attention, and not trying to be disrespectful. I just wish I knew why it bothers most people that I can't hold a gaze for long. :?: :roll:


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MomofThree1975
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18 May 2012, 3:42 pm

We have't started services as yet and since my sone wasn't around strangers, I am just learning (in the past few weeks) about his eye contact patterns. We havent started telling him to look at peoples eyes. He has expressive and receptive language delays so our goal is to work on communication, everything else is secondary. I just found it interesting that he has these rules. He insist on me looking at him, in his eyes, so I don't think eye contact his painful.

I had a theory and it sounds a little far fetched but I will throw it out anyway. I think the lady in our house was a stranger to him, that was brought into his space by someone else, so he didn't want to acknowledge her. It was a stranger that he did not initiate contact with. But, after sitting and talking with us for an hour and a half, he figured she wasn't a stranger anymore. So, then he could acknowlege her, say bye and look her in the eye. He did this with me asking him only once, no other prompt. He was not uncomfortable doing it.

With strangers, he is initiating contact, so he has control. Since he has control, he feels he can reach out to strangers and look them in the eye. I think it's a control thing. If he is in control, he will acknowlege someone when he is ready (i.e. eye contaact) but if he is not in control, he wont acknowledge someone when we bring them into his space (i.e. no eye contact). But if he feels he knows the person then the person is no longer a stranger so he doesn't look at them.

This sounds convulded I know, but I wonder if this has been anyone elses experience?



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18 May 2012, 4:08 pm

I think you are right that it is very contextual for some kids about whether they make eye contact or not. Both verbal and non-verbal (which is how I would classify eye contact) communication can by very emotionally charged in ways that a lot of people don't seem to recognize but people on the spectrum seem to be more sensitive to. That is what seems to make my son shut down both in not talking to people and not looking at them. When there are strong emotions going on for him, fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, etc. Perhaps for your son, when the woman first arrived, he was feeling strong emotions such as fear or anxiety but as she sat there maybe those feelings dissipated so by the time she left, he felt OK enough to look at her and address her. Plus, if you are asking him to say good-bye then I can see him making the connection that means she is leaving and if he didn't particularly like her being there, then her leaving would be a relief for him. Just speculating obviously. I think the control thing is accurate. Its probably not so fear provoking to address someone when it is his choice to do so.



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18 May 2012, 4:19 pm

MomofThree1975 wrote:
We have't started services as yet and since my sone wasn't around strangers, I am just learning (in the past few weeks) about his eye contact patterns. We havent started telling him to look at peoples eyes. He has expressive and receptive language delays so our goal is to work on communication, everything else is secondary. I just found it interesting that he has these rules. He insist on me looking at him, in his eyes, so I don't think eye contact his painful.

I had a theory and it sounds a little far fetched but I will throw it out anyway. I think the lady in our house was a stranger to him, that was brought into his space by someone else, so he didn't want to acknowledge her. It was a stranger that he did not initiate contact with. But, after sitting and talking with us for an hour and a half, he figured she wasn't a stranger anymore. So, then he could acknowlege her, say bye and look her in the eye. He did this with me asking him only once, no other prompt. He was not uncomfortable doing it.

With strangers, he is initiating contact, so he has control. Since he has control, he feels he can reach out to strangers and look them in the eye. I think it's a control thing. If he is in control, he will acknowlege someone when he is ready (i.e. eye contaact) but if he is not in control, he wont acknowledge someone when we bring them into his space (i.e. no eye contact). But if he feels he knows the person then the person is no longer a stranger so he doesn't look at them.

This sounds convulded I know, but I wonder if this has been anyone elses experience?


No no no! This is not convoluted at all! Your theory about your son initiating contact when he is able to feel in control is a perfect description of how I feel.

At work for instance, if someone comes to my cubicle door and knocks, I will ALWAYS smile, make eye contact briefly and invite them to come in and sit down. If someone just walks in, they invariably get "Jen's Fire Gaze" until they realize that they have overstepped some unspoken boundary with me and physically back up or ask if it is an okay time to talk.

(Note: I believe my "Fire Gaze" tendency developed because as a child, I was punished for "ignoring" people with extreme violence by my parents and other caregivers. It comforts me that your little one feels safe enough to not respond to people with whom they are uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar.)

I think you may have hit this issue right on the head of the nail! Well done MomofThree1975. I am excited for your son. I really am. :D



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19 May 2012, 12:32 am

MomofThree1975 wrote:
Eye contact - Are there "rules" for when to engage?

I wish there were some rules. I have tried to ask my wife about this thing, because she gets along with almost everyone. She mentioned a three-second-rule, dont hold eye contact more than 3 seconds at a time unless there are deep emotions going on(flirting, threatening, comforting, etc.).

ghostar wrote:
If someone just walks in, they invariably get "Jen's Fire Gaze" until they realize that they have overstepped some unspoken boundary with me and physically back up or ask if it is an okay time to talk.
This "Fire Gaze" is some of the reason why I avoid eye-contact, I dont want to come off as threatening to others, and since I dont know how to control my gaze yet, I rather avoid it(and my eyebrows doesn't make my gaze any less threatening). If you have any tips on how to make eyecontact without useing that :twisted: fire-gaze :twisted: , I would appreciate all and any. :D


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19 May 2012, 12:54 am

Haha blowmind,
That sounds interesting about the three second rule. I guess I have the tendency to "mad-dog" people without knowing it--and i do tend to keep eye contact. That maybe explains why some people have thought I was flirting with them?

All I can say about the child is that all children have a lower capacity for verbal communication, and so they do rely on eye contact to regulate the stimulation that an adult is giving them. (and NT children get overstimulated--which is exasperated by the way many adults aren't sensitive to children's cues for disengagement, which makes children feel powerless to regulate their own stimulation.)

It does seem like you've worked out an idea that he is actually communicating with you via his eye contact with her. But it could just mean she's overwhelming to him. Maybe he does feel more threatened by someone coming into the house because he probably has less control over whether or not they will over-stimulate him. However, with a stranger, he may not be so afraid the adult will overstimulate him, as he would be allowed to leave if he were to disengage eye contact? IDK.



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19 May 2012, 1:20 am

Blownmind wrote:
MomofThree1975 wrote:
Eye contact - Are there "rules" for when to engage?

I wish there were some rules. I have tried to ask my wife about this thing, because she gets along with almost everyone. She mentioned a three-second-rule, dont hold eye contact more than 3 seconds at a time unless there are deep emotions going on(flirting, threatening, comforting, etc.).

ghostar wrote:
If someone just walks in, they invariably get "Jen's Fire Gaze" until they realize that they have overstepped some unspoken boundary with me and physically back up or ask if it is an okay time to talk.
This "Fire Gaze" is some of the reason why I avoid eye-contact, I dont want to come off as threatening to others, and since I dont know how to control my gaze yet, I rather avoid it(and my eyebrows doesn't make my gaze any less threatening). If you have any tips on how to make eyecontact without useing that :twisted: fire-gaze :twisted: , I would appreciate all and any. :D


Well I have found that if I expect a visitor to my office, I can prepare mentally and do not automatically react with the "Fire Gaze." I am lucky because my direct supervisor, while an NT, is super sensitive (he is a sort of hippie type human) and really tries to ensure that others understand my special needs at the office. I wish we all had the uncommonly good fortune of having "hippie bosses" for this reason!

The irony of the whole mess is that I truly enjoy interacting with people but simply need a bit of prep time to do so if they are the ones initiating contact. If I initiate contact, however, most do not notice that I am different which surprises me since I am pretty extreme on the aspie spectrum. I guess I am a decent faker.

I think since I am female, I tend to get away with the fire gaze behaviour, but it is my understanding that this can lead to very serious problems for males on the spectrum. I do not completely understand male hierarchies in general so I don't know if my advice helps in the invent that you are a male. Sigh.



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19 May 2012, 4:06 am

ghostar wrote:
I think since I am female, I tend to get away with the fire gaze behaviour, but it is my understanding that this can lead to very serious problems for males on the spectrum. I do not completely understand male hierarchies in general so I don't know if my advice helps in the invent that you are a male. Sigh.

When I were younger, my best friends were mostly girls, so I am just like you, I do not completely understand the male hierarchies, and that sucks as a male. 8) It's summer now, luckily I can wear sunglasses 8)

Eye contact is a scary thing.. 8O


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19 May 2012, 12:37 pm

Blownmind wrote:
ghostar wrote:
I think since I am female, I tend to get away with the fire gaze behaviour, but it is my understanding that this can lead to very serious problems for males on the spectrum. I do not completely understand male hierarchies in general so I don't know if my advice helps in the invent that you are a male. Sigh.

When I were younger, my best friends were mostly girls, so I am just like you, I do not completely understand the male hierarchies, and that sucks as a male. 8) It's summer now, luckily I can wear sunglasses 8)

Eye contact is a scary thing.. 8O


Yes it is and I agree that sunglasses are a great way to appear normal.



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19 May 2012, 1:19 pm

Thank you all so much. You have really given me some good insight. Regarding saying "Hi" to strangers, since either the stranger or he is usually walking, or stops briefly, it is easy for him to disengage the eye contact. This is probably why he does it of his own free will. We don't ever force him to stare at anyone. If he wanders off, we will say, that's just how he is and leave it at that. No one has ever challenged us to do otherwise and when it comes to my children, I can be pretty aggressive so people usually just leave them alone.

When he get's older, I will teach him that 3 second rule too (I will need to use it for myself also). I am NT but I don't like extended eye contact, especially with a superior. My mother is the same. I think it's a cultural thing though. It just feels too personal. I can maintain eye contact with family and some friends. But apart from that, it just feels too personal.



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19 May 2012, 5:37 pm

MomofThree1975 wrote:
Thank you all so much. You have really given me some good insight. Regarding saying "Hi" to strangers, since either the stranger or he is usually walking, or stops briefly, it is easy for him to disengage the eye contact. This is probably why he does it of his own free will. We don't ever force him to stare at anyone. If he wanders off, we will say, that's just how he is and leave it at that. No one has ever challenged us to do otherwise and when it comes to my children, I can be pretty aggressive so people usually just leave them alone.

When he get's older, I will teach him that 3 second rule too (I will need to use it for myself also). I am NT but I don't like extended eye contact, especially with a superior. My mother is the same. I think it's a cultural thing though. It just feels too personal. I can maintain eye contact with family and some friends. But apart from that, it just feels too personal.


Just for the record, I find you to be extraordinarily strong. Few NTs seem to have the courage to do what you are doing for their kids. I could simply not understand them...but still I think you are to be commended for your efforts to communicate with us.

Please keep posting here at WP. Your questions about your littles help me understand myself. :)