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.