The autism conference featured a panel of adults with Asperger’s. Each related their ups and downs with college, jobs, relationships, and independent living, then the moderator opened the session to questions from the audience.

“Why is eye contact so hard for you?” a woman asked a twenty-something man on the panel.

His gaze zeroed in on his hands, clasped on the table in front of him. “I don’t know,” he said. “It just is.”

Look me in the eye. Isn’t this phrase most often uttered as an admonishment or a challenge? We use it to demand someone’s undivided attention, or to contest their truthfulness. When directed at children, we often follow it with “young man” or “young lady” for sarcastic emphasis. Look me in the eye is nearly always meant to generate discomfort, and it does. That goes double for many children with autism, for whom the demand for eye contact can feel like punishment for an unfathomable infraction they haven’t committed.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a Look me in the eye, can you recall how it felt? Hang onto that thought for a moment while I extend it.

A remarkable paraeducator guided Bryce through his early elementary school years. Teachers called her Magic Nola because she nurtured a special kind of trust in children, and it gained her their compliance and cooperation where other adults failed. When asked the secret of success, she said it was “Simple. I never asked him to do anything I wasn’t willing to do myself.”

Is it that simple? In theory, perhaps. But in practice? Consider what we expect of school-age children: that they come to school at the appointed time, be well behaved and industrious and focused all day, to use every minute to learn to the farthest extent of their abilities. Kids with autism struggle not just with learning itself, but with the learning environment and its physical, sensory and social discomforts and stressors. We expect of them, six hours a day, 175 days of the year, to do things that are devilishly hard for them. We expect them not just to learn and improve, but to be pleasant and compliant in doing it, to “pay attention” (a phrase that baffles many concrete-thinking children with autism) and have no “off days.” In doing so, we require of our children diligence of which many adults seem incapable. Witness myriad company complaints about employees surfing the Web, hanging out on Facebook, playing computer games while at work.

Look me in the eye. Are you willing to ask nothing of your child or student that you can’t or won’t do yourself?

A teacher once told me this story, an episode she prefaced with “Going into a class full of educators can be traumatic!” She registered for a class aimed at understanding and helping struggling readers. “It was the worst learning environment for me,” she said. “Teachers were passing notes, eating loud things, talking to each other, ignoring the instructor, playing with their phones. In eight hours, they were going to get up, go to school, stand in front of a classroom of kids and be irritated if any student is off task! It was just aggravating because they were the worst students. It was such a stark illustration. These folks were comfortable being in charge of other learners. But to have to sit and absorb knowledge themselves? They found that to be hard.”

Look me in the eye. Can we look ourselves in the eye and know that our expectations for our kids are reasonable, attainable and no more than what we expect of ourselves? And imagine for a moment a role reversal in which a child with autism demands that you look him in the eye. What assumptions about your actions and intentions lurk behind the demand? From what perspective would he view you, your actions, your words, your body language, your shared history?

Can you look that child in the eye?



© 2014 Ellen Notbohm
Photo © Marcel Mooij/Dollar Photo Club



One Response to “Autism, eye contact, and expectations: “Look me in the eye” demands role reversal”

  1. Julie Bryant-Sullivan says:

    Thank you

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