Published Articles

The Third Step of Communication: Think With Your Eyes

Autism Asperger's Digest

Originally published by Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine
Column 8: Think Social
March-April 2009 issue
© 2009
Written by: Michelle Garcia Winner


Apparently within the autism community, the eyes have it. Peruse 10 different IEPs and you'll probably find goals or objectives involving eye contact on every one.

"Mary will make eye contact when conversing in class."

"George will respond to the command, ‘Look at me" appropriately 9 out of 10 times."

"Grace will wave and make eye-contact when saying ‘hello' to her teacher each morning."

In my opinion parents and professionals are stuck on the idea that eyeball-to-eyeball communication will somehow magically result in social thinking. I'm here to say, it doesn't. Our eyes play an active role in communication, but the physical act of eye contact and the social awareness of when/why/how/where we use it are two very different things. To tell students to "use eye-contact" or "look at me" assumes they know what they are looking at and why it is important. A singular focus on making eye contact creates a false assumption of social thinking skills that can set our students up for failure right from the start.

In previous columns we have explored the idea that successful communication is a symphonic blend of multiple social thinking concepts and skills put into action with precision timing. It starts with thinking about the person we want to communicate with (Step 1), followed by deciding how we should physically approach that person or group (Step 2) to move the interaction forward. Today's column moves into the third step of communication: how we bring our eyes into the communicative process and what role they play in relating to others.

As surprising as it may seem, some students (and adults) with social thinking challenges are not aware that people watch other people's eyes to gain clues about what they may be looking at and thus, thinking about. In the developmental literature this is called "establishing joint attention" and it is a developmental milestone for most 9-12 month old neurotypical babies. So is it possible for a 17-year-old class valedictorian or a 40-year-old bright, neurotypical-looking business man to lack this fine-tuned skill? Actually, the answer is yes! And, it's more common than you may guess. In our clinic work I find many of our "higher level" students and adults on the autism spectrum clueless about the physical nuances involved in face-to-face social interaction. In many cases, no one has ever told them they can use their eyes to get people's attention or track when other people are paying attention to them. Temple Grandin, one of the most notable figures worldwide with autism, and a brilliant professional and scholar, has stated that it wasn't until she was 51 that she learned people send signals to each other with their eyes!

Allan is an executive who leads a staff team. While he has Asperger's Syndrome it is not obvious or even noticeable to most. He is a generous, kind and thoughtful man who works incredibly hard in his field. He has friends and a girl friend. He also works hard to learn about the nuance of social communication. As successful as Allan appears, he is frustrated by his track record. He has never had a girlfriend longer than 9 months and he has never held a job for more than two years. The effort he puts into his success is not rewarded by the longevity of what matters most to him: a romantic relationship and a steady career.

Recently Allan's girlfriend told him he was "rude" because he yelled at waiters in restaurants when he needed their attention. She felt he should try harder to get their attention nonverbally. When he spoke to me about this I pointed out that this was likely because he was not using his eyes to show he was thinking about the waiter; instead he was just using his language to grab their attention. About a week later he told me he decided to try to use his eyes to show people he was thinking about them rather than just use his voice. He said he was skeptical about how effective this would be, but he tried it anyway, if for nothing else than to prove us wrong. Allan went on to explain he was at a restaurant with his girlfriend and this time when he wanted more water he did not yell it out to the passing waiter. Instead he just put his hand on his water glass and looked directly at the waiter. With great excitement he then exclaimed, "and the waiter came to me!" Later that evening he took his girlfriend to a bar and rather than yell to the bartender he stared at the bartender and once again he said, "and I have never been served so quickly in my life!" A world of nonverbal communication had just opened up for Allan.

As teachers and parent-teachers working with students with social communication difficulties, teaching students eye contact or to respond to a "look at me" command is not enough. We must impress on these individuals that our eyes are a critical tool we use in communication to

  • get someone's attention
  • figure out what they are thinking based on what they are looking at
  • gauge their internal state and emotions as expressed through their eyes and facial expression

As I continued to work with Allan, he shared that he always seemed to talk to people at the wrong time, which caused friction with his staff. We created a plan. If he wanted to talk to a person, he would enter their field of vision and see if they looked up to acknowledge him. Only then would he start talking. My client - as intelligent in other ways as he was - was dubious that simply walking up to a person's doorway would get their attention, so we agreed he would make a little sound as he approached so they would know he was there. Allan emailed me this message a few days after our discussion:

"This afternoon I tried it with two people. As you recall, I was planning to get people's attention by making a little noise. The first person I tried it on is deaf in one ear and has partial hearing in the other. Much to my surprise, as soon as I appeared in her doorway, she looked up. We had a brief conversation about the visit she just made to her son at college... It went well. The second person I tried it on has full hearing and immediately looked up when I stood in his doorway. Maybe the noise isn't even necessary. Maybe all I need to do is appear at the edge of someone's vision and if they're available, they will see me. I will experiment more with it...Tomorrow I will try it without noise and see if that works."

The next day I received this email:

"I've never thought about this...prior to working with you. Using eye contact wouldn't have occurred to me if it had not been for you and Kaitlyn [his girlfriend]. Thank you. Lots of growth and lots of work these days."

In the next column we'll describe strategies to teach and encourage this important concept and skill. Until then, do a little experiment for yourself: find out how much your own child or student understands about using the concept of "thinking with your eyes". You might be amazed!