'Teaching' eye contact and The eye contact controversy

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There is a controversy within the ABA treatment community about whether we should ‘teach’ eye contact to children with ASD. Opposing voices, those who insist intervention should not include efforts to enhance eye contact, are informed by reports from adult persons with autism who as children receiving “ABA”, recall uncomfortable or painful experiences during exercises that were employed for teaching eye contact. That making eye contact ‘hurt them’. 

As clinicians, we always need to be exquisitely sensitive to any pain and discomfort resulting from what we do and such indications always require adjustments on our part. After all, our job as teachers is to ensure that children are happy and engaged in learning. This goes without saying. 

A little history

Many years ago, (and perhaps still), a particular exercise called “look at me” was standard in EIBI practice. During this ‘exercise’ children were asked to sustain eye contact for increasingly longer periods of time….5 secs, 10 secs… the longer the better. There were accompanying efforts to ‘prompt’ eye contact by forcing children's heads up,  hoping that the child would look at the instructor’s eyes. It is safe to say, the “Look at me” exercise, resulted(s) in discomfort on all levels and if it is still included in intervention programs, it should be excised.

However, efforts to establish eye contact – should not be discarded. It is possible to enhance eye contact without discomfort or pain. It is possible to increase eye contact with joy and fun. Moreover, abandoning efforts to enhance eye contact is to forgo offering children the benefits of ‘eye contact’. 

But wait. There are other voices who give other reasons for not addressing issues pertaining to eye contact in children with autism. Doing so, they argue, is to try to make persons with autism, or autistic persons, non-autistic. This suggestion comes out of the neurodiversity movement. It is not clear to me what this all means as there is much confusion and muddle surrounding this call for neurodiversity. What is clear to me and my colleagues is that the goal for intervention should only ever be to assist in ways so that persons who struggle to navigate in the world are able to do so more easily. Enhancing eye contact is one of those things. Let's explore this. 

Benefits of eye contact

For purposes of intervention it useful to consider that to ‘have eye contact’ is to acquire a 'technique’; a technique that is part of way in which we communicate, verbally and non-verbally. Having such 'eye contact technique' enhances one's abilities in communication. It enhances social acuity and awareness.  

‘Eye contact’ is involved when checking-in with others, checking back with others, checking others out. Eye contact is often manifest when obtaining or soliciting approval, acknowledgement or agreement. It is used to solicit feedback, to invite a response. It is manifest in efforts to secure attention and assurances of attention, when directing others or taking direction. It is used to convey appeals for assistance, to implore, to convey uncertainty and confusion, it is employed for emphasis/ or to stress a point. There are many things we do which involves eye contact, with or without words, gesture or  facial expression.

It is possible, by using basic shaping procedures, that eye gaze can be developed so that it may eventually used within communication and linguistic practices to different effect… so that children acquire a technique. Eye contact as a technique does not always need to be taught directly, but we have found that by getting children into the habit of meeting the gaze of others, under highly contrived situations, it may lead to the development of eye contact 'technique' manifest across various communication practices.

Establishing early eye contact/ early ‘habit’

When initiating intervention… even for children involved in intervention for many years, we first establish attention / eye contact. At its most basic, intervention is about getting children to pay attention to us so that we can teach them efficiently and effectively and so that children come to learn through us and enjoy with us. After all, learning, particularly for young children is a social enterprise. We get attention / eye contact off the ground by first offering regular access to goodies…for a short time… minutes and hours… not the days and weeks usually devoted to “pairing”.

 

The reinforcers we select are those we are able to keep in our hands, (candies are especially good because they ‘disappear’ once eaten and thus they don’t need to be retrieved, thereby avoiding side-effects of ‘removal’). If candies aren’t preferred, care must be taken when removing the things that had been offered (Greg Hanley offers guidance on how to manage this well) so to not create unhappiness.

 

When we begin, we display the item as it lies in our hands. If children's eyes track to the item in our hand, it gives us some assurance that it will likely serve as a reinforcer. If they do not track to the item in our hand, try something else. We call these items ‘eye catchers’. We want ‘eye catchers’.

Once 'eye catchers' are identified, and children have come to expect delivery when the item is shown, we change the rules a bit. Once the child looks to the item in our hand,  we track the item to our eyes (between our eyes to be precise). As we track it up, we expect the child's eyes come up with it to meet ours... and the child receives the item. Eye contact needs only to be momentary and delivery of the R+ needs to be immediate… As eyes meet, children begin to also see our smiles and our excitement with them. If children do not track up as we raise the item to our eyes, switch the item until tracking to eyes occurs. (If no tracking occurs, it is usually an indication that the item is not ‘strong’ enough to serve as a reinforcer.)

In this way it is possible to begin to establish a basic routine… 'when you look at me something terrific will happen' thus establishing a ‘habit’ of looking at the person before them. It's simple for the child and it’s free of discomfort (we recognize discomfort when it occurs. Additionally, if there were discomfort, we would see greater gaze avoidance, not more.) In 28 years of practice, I’ve seen that as eye contact increases, I also see children more happily engaged in more efficient learning. Moreover, it’s easy to implement this simple procedure, both for parents and teachers.

Once this basic routine is established by prompting the child’s gaze to meet yours, begin to wait to see if their eyes come up on their own. If so … reinforce… and if a child enjoys, include pats on backs, noodle arms, kisses, tickles etc. If you are getting eye contact, but not smiles and laughter,  work harder to ensure maximum happiness. If eyes don’t come up on their own… use a quick ‘prompt’; show the item in your hand, track and reinforce or try showing the reinforcer but withhold reinforcement for a bit and see if eyes come up without tracking. Don’t assume it will happen without reinforcement - Good happiness producing reinforcement! Naturally, schedules of reinforcement can be thinned over time particularly as eye gaze begins to occur more spontaneously.

Moving ahead:

With this basic routine in place, begin to teach new things and establish a ‘response package’ that looks like this:

 

             Look at teacher>listen>respond>look at teacher again>reinforce.

 

For example:

 

             Establish eye contact> present instruction (e.g., give me the car)  > child offers a car- as child offers the car,      prompt for eye contact (this occurs almost simultaneously > deliver reinforcer

This routine works on several levels. First it assures instructors that they have a good reinforcer. We have found that diminution of eye contact suggests the need to switch items used for reinforcement. This sometimes is needed on a moment-to-moment basis… so don’t become complacent with your selection of reinforcers. Simply because a child accepts something doesn’t mean it is a reinforcer… We see a strong correlation between ‘tracking’ and effective reinforcer selection. This ‘response package’ rules out questions of ‘inattention’ when teaching. If eyes drift, we restart and reassess our reinforcers. Over time and out of practical considerations, the 'routine' will need to be relaxed...but bear in mind the need to continue to reinforce eye gaze... not necessarily by calling attention to it of course... but just because you adore the little person in front of you. 

The eye contact springboard:

These early eye contact 'habits’ serve as a springboard that allows for greater success with other exercises which call for eye contact. Foundational exercises such as following a point and teaching children to use a point (joint attention) will more likely be successful if these eye gaze habits are established. Pragmatics during requests, calling someone's name or delivery of items are more easily shaped as children are accustomed to looking up and responding to the ‘tracking prompt’.  We can contrive exercises with  ‘programmed uncertainty’ or ‘ambiguity’ so that children need to look back to us in order to obtain clarification on what to do or how to proceed. Such exercises may be found in Early Intervention for Children with ASD: Considerations and perhaps in other common intervention guides.

To summarize:

 

It is important that children meet our gaze. Establishing eye contact should be fun filled. It is important to know that this can be accomplished without creating distress or discomfort in children. Integrating eye contact into communication practices increases communication efficiencies and adds to the number of tools and related techniques in a child's communication toolbox.