Fort Myers OT Insight: “How Can I Help My Child With Eye Contact?”
A child may avoid eye contact for a number of reasons, but it’s something to really pay attention to because it’s one of the earliest indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Infants who avoid eye contact with their parents – something that can be observed in a baby as young as 3 months – need to carefully monitored and assessed if the problem persists. Most babies start making eye contact no later than 6 months of age. If this is something you’ve noticed, it’s imperative to talk to your pediatrician about a potential referral for ADOS testing. If you already know your child is on the spectrum and is struggling socially, our Fort Myers OT (occupational therapy) team has some strategies that may help improve eye contact.
When Should My Baby Be Making Eye Contact?
Babies start using eye gaze to regulate behavior at around 5-6 months of age. By around 7-9 months, they use eye gaze to initiate joint attention. Joint attention is when a person purposefully coordinates his/her focus of attention with that of another person. In other words, two people are intentionally paying attention to the same thing for social reasons. If you say to your child, “Look at that big ball,” and the child looks to where you have pointed to see the ball. You’ve just engaged in joint attention. Kids on the autism spectrum struggle with joint attention, as it’s considered a social skill. Difficulty with joint attention can lead to or at least be closely correlated with developmental language delays.
As our Fort Myers OT professionals can explain, most toddlers will pair eye contact with their gestures at least half the time when they’re communicating. When kids struggle to pair their gestures or words with an eye gaze, it could be a red flag. For a child with social-communication deficits, consider that it can be really difficult to listen to someone talk, understand what they are saying and look at them at the same time.
Even as they get older, kids with autism may be apprehensive about establishing eye contact because they don’t have the ability to communicate. Some kids on the spectrum require a great deal of concentration to make and sustain eye contact. It’s important for parents not to force their kids to have eye contact, as this could result in frustration and anxiety. Instead, there are tactics we as occupational therapists can use in sessions and teach you for carryover.
Fort Myers OT Tips for Encouraging Eye Contact
With patience, positivity, and encouragement, you can help your child make and maintain eye contact. It can be difficult at first, but know that working on this skill is something that is not only going to help them in the short term, but long term when it comes to making friends and succeeding throughout life.
- When you’re playing. Start with peek-a-boo. Smile, tickle, hug, laugh, make funny sounds, funny faces – whatever your child likes – to reinforce anytime your child is successful in making eye contact. When you’re pushing your child on the swings, stand in front of them. Catch them at the bottom of the slide or when they jump in the pool. Blow bubbles together, and pause when your eyes connect. If your child is a bit older, have a silly staring contest. Play face imitation games (i.e., you make a face, then your child tries to imitate it, and visa versa). Although a lot of this can seem like you’re “just having fun,” remember that play is how kids learn, and you are intentionally helping them to build this important life skill when you engage with them this way.
- When you’re eating. Feeding is a great time to practice eye contact. For a baby 5-8-months-old, get a spoonful ready, get their attention, raise the spoon between your eyes. When your baby looks, reward the eye contact with coos and smiles right before putting the spoonful of goodness in their mouth. If your child is a bit older (toddler or preschool), wait for their eyes to meet yours before giving them their cup or sharing the food. Give them praise when they get it right!
- When you’re chatting. If your child is verbal, encourage eye contact during each conversation. You want eye contact to be as natural as “please-and-thank-you.” Work on having your child look you in the eye when saying hello, goodbye, when asking for something, when answering a question, when s/he has something to say, when saying thank you, and offering an I love you. You can reinforce it too when you’re reading books and singing songs too.
- When he’s asking for something. You can ask your Ft. Myers OT what’s developmentally appropriate for your child, but we often encourage parents to hold off on handing over a requested toy or food item until the child makes eye contact. If they aren’t quite there yet, you can always hold the desired item in front of your eyes, wait until he turns his gaze there, and then hand it over.
Don’t forget to model good eye contact yourself! It’s gotten really easy as adults to forget to do this when we’re staring at our phone or clacking away on our laptops. When you’re speaking to your child – or even others with your child in the vicinity – make it a point to stop what you’re doing and make eye contact when you’re speaking.
If you’re looking for additional tips and insight, our FOCUS Therapy early intervention team of occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and behavior/ABA therapists are happy to help!
FOCUS offers Fort Myers OT, ST, PT, and ABA therapies for kids. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
8 Reasons A Toddler May Make Little To No Eye Contact, Jan. 24, 2021, By Ashley Wehrli, Moms.com
About Joint Attention, UNC School of Medicine, Department of Allied Health Science, Social Communication and Play
More Blog Entries:
Zip It! Occupational Therapy Tips on Learning to Button & Zip, Oct. 5, 2021, Ft. Myers OT Blog
Fort Myers Occupational Therapists: Learning to Be Flexible is Key for Kids With Autism, Sept. 10, 2021, Fort Myers Occupational Therapy Blog