The Bridge: About Eye Contact

One thing that I have noticed in the autism field is that there are very few autistic voices. This is unfortunate, because as workers we can learn a lot from those who have gone through the very therapy that we are now giving. Listening to the experiences of those on the receiving end is not just a good idea business-wise; in our field, it is just plain humane.

When it comes to eye contact, the main point that I have heard from autistic adults is that it is simply not easy for them. It is not a matter of being insubordinate or even stubborn, it is just difficult. I myself can attest to this: I have a hard time with eye contact as well. I often how to remind myself to do it, otherwise my eyes will just dart everywhere else. For me, it is very intense, and I can see immediately what the other person thinks of me through their eyes. That can be hard to face, because no matter how nice their words are, their eyes give them away.

So when I see interventionists and specialists trying to get eye contact by force, it makes me cringe, hard. While it is a valuable skill that helps you with nonverbal cues, forcing anyone into it (especially by physical restraint, which sadly I have heard of occurring) is just wrong.

I have to make eye contact enticing, something worth the action to the client. So, I hold up a desired object to my face, preferably aligned with my eyes. With Peter, it took a few times, but he eventually met eyes with me. I thanked him and gave him the object. I didn’t pull the object away if he didn’t make eye contact, because I knew he simply wasn’t comfortable enough yet. Once he was, the eye contact became more frequent. Eventually, he started looking at me first and THEN the object, indicating that he would like to have it.

Again, the key point was that I did not force him. I never held his face in place. I never punished him or withheld an object because he didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t want to punish Peter for doing what feels comfortable to him. I did want to teach him that he can ease out of his comfort zone (in his own time), and that there were good things to be had by doing so.

This simple action will now become the baseline for any other work going forward. Eye contact will lead to more interactions, and to the beginning stages of speech. If at any point I see Peter’s eye contact drop back into his comfort zone, I know that I either pushed too much or he simply needs a break. Either way, I take a step back (sometimes literally). In all of this (and I cannot stress this enough), I want to make sure that these initial steps are taken with care and an open mind. This will be important later, when the more challenging behaviors emerge.

Goal of session three: Start eye contact, while maintaining a suitable comfort level

Next week: We will start looking at some of the behaviors that “scare” newcomers to the autism field.

The Bridge: 3,2,1…Contact!

Last week, we met our new client and collected as much information as we could on them. Among the data that we gathered was the fact that they LOVE toy trains. So, guess what I brought to the next session?

Peter likes to line up the toy trains, and then rearrange the order. He gets very excited whenever he does this. Rather than deter him from the activity (which is sometimes the first instinct), I decide to take a different approach.

First, I do not give Peter all of the trains that I have. I keep at least three of them. When he starts lining his trains up, I start to do the same and match his enthusiasm. In fact, I may actually get more into the trains, though not enough to disorient him. While doing this, I don’t immediately interact with him. This is only the second session, and as a newcomer I do not have that privilege just yet.

Then, it happens.

Peter pauses and makes brief eye contact with me…but it’s longer than any time previous. He then goes right back to his trains. My immediate response is: “Peter, you looked at me!” in a quiet but enthused tone. With this I achieve two things: I acknowledge his communication attempt, and I indicate that I am happy with this action. After that, I go right back to my trains as well.

One of the biggest problems I see here from Interventionists and Specialists is a lack of patience and a need to perform. This is especially true if a parent/caretaker if observing the session. It’s normal to feel this way, to feel nervous about how the entire family is viewing you, your actions, and your expertise. It is important, however, to remember why you are there, and to trust your intuition. When reviewing video with workers after their session, or in feedback meetings following sessions, the workers often knew what they should have been doing, but became intimidated by what they thought the family wanted them to do. If you feel this happening to you, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with the family about what the expectations are. Are there certain therapeutic approaches that they prefer? How willing are they to try other possibilities? If the client is verbal, you can also ask them. I have had treatment plan meetings where the clients (in my case, autistic preteens) had a say in their goals and their progress.

Back to Peter. More than likely, I will not push him much further beyond eye contact on the second session. I will also make a point to explain my method to the parents so that everyone is on the same page. That will save you a lot of confusion down the road: lay a plan out to the family, and review what you worked on at the end of the session before you leave.

Goal of session two: Acknowledgement/contact

Next week, we’ll look at how to build on that “blink and you’ll miss it” eye contact.

PS- The title is an 80’s reference. Can my 80’s Babies guess what I’m referring to? 🙂

Early Intervention Study

Below is a link to a Forbes article about a recent study published in The Lancet. The study involved a look at an early intervention technique for autism called PACT, which stands for  Preschool Autism Communication Trial. The approach essentially trains the parents to recognize communication attempts and cues from their autistic children. The intervention starts at preschool age, goes for about a year, and follows up with the participants around age 10.

While I really like the idea of giving power back to the families (unlike, say, many forms of ABA that leaves power with the professionals), I also see the author’s point of whether or not PACT truly had an effect. There is a lot of data analysis in here, so if you prefer to just get the abridged version, the first few paragraphs of page one and the last few paragraphs of page two will suffice.

Analysis of the PACT study