Eye Contact and Autism

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“Go AWAY!”  The little girl yelled at Declan.

“I AM PLAYING WITH YOU!” Declan retorted.

The girl ran away, fed up with Declan.  Enamored by her, Declan had spent the last 5 minutes randomly smiling at her inches from her face, hugging her, throwing sticks at her and giving her mild pinches.

She had had enough.

“Come on Declan, come play with me!” I yelled to him from the side of the slide.

“I AM PLAYING WITH HER!”  Declan yelled back.

Declan caught up with the girl and she gave him a quick jab in the side.  Declan became ecstatic.  I am sure he felt, “This new jab game should be fun!”

“Declan, no!  No hit!” I called as I dashed to catch up to him.

And as I moved around the play gym to get closer, Declan jabbed her and she fell to the ground.  Declan, feeling he had won the jab game, jumped for joy until I could properly intervene.

Eye Contact

“Declan was able to participate in some cooperative play with his peers, he was able to make eye contact with the evaluator…….”

The assessor kept talking, but my mind stopped.

Just keep it together, keep it together – let it go, let it go…..it doesn’t apply here…” I repeated to myself.

And to consciously keep myself on track, I bit my lip and continued listening to the assessment results.


There are times I have encountered non-autism professionals in discussion and hear a comment about how they do not feel a child in question REALLY has autism.

Topics they use to defend their beliefs:

  1. The child’s speech is too good
  2. The child does not flap their hands
  3. The child does not walk on their toes
  4. The child can make eye contact

Hearing these statements from people really upsets me having heard a non-autism professional say to me, “Declan doesn’t have autism.  He can make eye contact!”

For me, I had always wondered if these professionals thought that I had diagnosed Declan by myself.  Did they not realize that a Developmental Pediatrician diagnosed him?  And then reconfirmed the diagnosis 3 years later?

I realize that it comes down to education.  These “hallmarks” that non-autism professionals, like regular education teachers, look for – speech, toe walking, hand flapping and eye contact – are NOT how autism is diagnosed and are NOT good indicators of autism for all individuals.

When you look at part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, how big is the reference to eye contact?

Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.


Eye contact is not the major part of the autism diagnosis.  It is an EXAMPLE of a nonverbal communicative behavior. 

When you watch Declan interact with his peers, he has a lot of other deficits in his understanding of social interaction.  Like what I witnessed that day at the playground.  He got too close, touched too much, didn’t understand the explicit, “I do not want to play with you!”

But he was looking at her.

The best way I have heard autism explained is in this one sentence.

“Autism is unique.”

How autism affects one individual may not be the same way autism affects another individual.

And the emphasis on eye contact needs to be lessened.

In conclusion, there are a lot of faces of autism.  All beautiful.  And all capable of different things.



20 thoughts on “Eye Contact and Autism

  1. Grrr! How frustrating! It’s amazing how much misinformation is still out there. Ben plays just like Declan😆 Too bad we don’t live closer. They could happily poke, jab and invade each other’s space😉 Ben likes to wear his Batman costume. We could have a Spiderman vs Batman play-down😂💞

      1. Ben would love it too!! Ben is a sweet kid. All the adults love him. Unfortunately all the NT kids outside of school are just confused by him. I don’t want to follow him around a playground trying to explain autism to a bunch of kids, so I hope for the best and intervene when necessary.

        1. That is exactly what I do too! We go to the playground and hope for the best. When I have to step in, I do. When things get out of hand, I try to explain. I know that giving him opportunities to socialize is important, but every now and again I sure do love the empty playground 🙂

    1. They are both good guys! They would fight the forces of evil together! (I know – I am always a good guy too when I join the fight 🙂 )

  2. I love this so much! I work with kids who have different special needs. I work with a few who have been diagnosed with autism. Many people just do not understand that just because a child is “different” does not mean that he/she is autistic or just because a child is autistic does not mean that the child will be extremely different from other children. There are so many different levels on the spectrum that no two children diagnosed with autism are exactly the same! I may share this post with the parents of the children that I work with that have been diagnosed. They would love it as well!

    1. Yes, exactly! No two children are alike, no two children with autism are alike. And yes, some kids just do things a little differently – but that does not mean they have autism. And if someone were to identify themselves or their child as a person on the spectrum, I feel that people should be less quick to judge the correctness of the diagnosis and to instead ask questions. They may learn something more about autism they didn’t know before. I am so glad you liked the post – please feel free to share with anyone that would enjoy it as well! Thank you!

    1. I wonder if things would be different if you were to see her face to face – I wonder if talking to a screen throws her off a little bit. Or maybe she is just finding social interactions more difficult as she ages?

  3. Wow! That’s some serious misinformation. And to come from professionals that should know better, it’s really sad. Please keep up with what you are doing because all this misinformation leads to children like Declan not getting the best of what they require. By the way, I love the Spider-Man v Batman. You guys need to arrange a meeting hoping you live in the same country 😊😉

    1. Yes, the original “He doesn’t have autism because he can make eye contact” statement came to me from a private speech therapist I had involved to help Declan speak and to process words. She was older and I wondered if she understood how varied the autism spectrum can now be. Thank you! Yes – I bit my tongue that day as I was waiting to see if his assessment was going to provide necessary school services, which it did. The statement came from an Occupational Therapist who works in a regular school setting. I was ready to pounce, but it wasn’t the main issue and I let it slide – but will definitely address it again if it comes up as a determining factor for possible services. I know – the Spiderman/Batman meeting would be so awesome!!

    1. Yep! I get frustrated with outsiders trying to validate an autism diagnosis based on their own beliefs about autism. Each individual is so wonderfully unique 🙂

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