Just this week, my other half who is a teacher came back from work and told me that professionals had come into the school for a training session and told teachers they should be encouraging eye contact to show good listening. Because I talk to my partner a lot about neurodiversity-affirming practice he knew this was wrong and called it out.
There’s two things I took away from this, firstly, he actually does listen to my infodumps AND values what I say. Secondly, schools are still teaching children to give eye contact?!
Why are we still teaching neurodivergent kids to give us eye contact? Just why?
“Look at me whilst I’m talking to you.” That phrase just makes me squirm. It was what I was told throughout my life because no one knew I was autistic and ADHD. No one understood how distressing and uncomfortable it was for me to meet their eyes for prolonged periods. It was traumatic.
That’s what many of the neurodivergent kids across the UK experience. The difference is people know those kids are neurodivergent and they still pressure them into eye contact. There’s so many things wrong with that and here’s just a few:
Active listening skills just don’t apply to neurodivergent people
We’re always taught in school that to be polite we must face the speaker, look at them and keep still whilst we listen. This shows that we’re interested in what the person is saying, if we deviate from this model even slightly we appear ‘rude’.
So, neurodivergent people are taught to ignore all their body instincts in order to make other people happy and think positively of them.
Here’s some news for people who believe the active listening framework is applicable to everyone. If someone is talking to me and I’m giving consistent eye contact I am not listening to what you are saying properly. If I’m fiddling with something, have my hands busy on a task, doodling, walking around or looking around the room I am much, much more likely to be taking in what you are saying.
When I sit still with ‘quiet hands’ I physically cannot listen and pay attention to what you are saying to me because my body is dysregulated. If I am still, I am distressed, it’s all part of my neurodivergence.
Forcing eye contact is dangerous
Throughout our lifetimes, autistic people experience neurodivergent trauma almost daily. A big part of this is body autonomy violation. If you are forcing a child to make eye contact when they don’t want to it is a violation of their rights and their body autonomy. Unfortunately, and rather depressingly this leaves autistic people more vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and exploitation.
It’s not child-centred, we are doing what’s best for us
Why do we want people to look at us whilst we speak? The short answer is that we want to feel respected by the person listening. It’s about our needs and not others.
We expect neurodivergent children to look us in the eye because it makes us feel good. We disregard the discomfort, stress and possible pain of the person being forced into the eye contact. When we put it like that it highlights just how unethical eye contact goals.
“But we need to give people eye contact for our social skills!”
Do we? I’ve heard therapists say that the goal of increasing eye contact is to obtain joint attention and help children read facial expressions and body cues.
There’s two points to this, the first is that the way we as speech therapists aim to improve joint attention is unethical in parts. There are practices where the therapist withholds desired objects, even food (in rare occasions) from the child until they look towards the therapist. This is called sabotage. It’s unethical.
The second point is that we are once again placing emphasis on the child to be a ‘better communicator’ when there are two people in the interaction. Neurotypicals expect autistic people to adjust to their way of communication but what’s to stop the neurotypicals adjusting to ours?
Instead of expecting the autistic person to give eye contact in order to read our facial expressions and body cues why don’t we tell them how we are feeling and what we are trying to communicate visually or with words?
Neurodiversity-affirming therapy goals for eye contact
We should not be writing any goals that sound like ‘encourage X’s eye contact’. The only way we should be working on their eye contact is giving them the skills to self-advocate for that difference in communication. This will help them tell people why they don’t give eye contact and to respect this difference.
One thing we know for sure is that goals on eye contact don’t benefit the child, they only make them conform to neurotypical expectations and encourage them to mask. And we know that masking leads to mental health issues and burnout.
It is unethical to teach or even encourage eye contact. Put your eye contact goals in the bin where they belong!
Note: please note that some of the links in this article are not neurodiversity-affirming. I do not agree with the information in some of these posts, which is shown in the information given in the article.