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.