When Xolie Morra Cogley greets clients at her dog grooming business in Seattle, she struggles to make eye contact, a common trait among people with autism. Once the customers leave, eye contact with the dogs is much easier ― and essential.
Cogley, 37, who describes herself as an “autistic woman of all trades,” said she’s trained herself to keep eye contact with her four-legged charges to establish the essential leadership role in order to avoid aggression and bites.
People are a different story. But Cogley said they are understanding of her eye shifts when she explains why.
“I choose to tell them when I get the feeling that they are having a hard time understanding my different expression of anxiety,” she added.
Cogley, who has performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” with her band, Xolie Morra and the Strange Kind, stresses that she has made a conscious choice to educate others about her autism. However, she said she respects the feelings of those who choose not to discuss their diagnosis.
“Sometimes, people start to treat me differently, because they think I’m not paying attention,” she said. “Or [they don’t] understand some of the things that I do, like hand-flapping, when I’m overwhelmed.”
There’s another common misunderstanding, even among people educated on autism: that lack of eye contact indicates a lack of empathy or connection. The idea stems from British psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith, who coined the term “mindblindness” in the 1980s, referring to what they considered to bethe core deficit in autism. By their definition, this indicated a person with autism’s inability to employ the “theory of mind.” Baron-Cohen and Frith’s theory states that autistic people lack the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others.
However, findings in a new study appear to debunk this theory.
The study published in June in Scientific Reports reveals that people with autism spectrum disorder avoid eye contact because it causes anxiety, and not as an unintentional demonstration of lack of empathy. Not only does this validate what people with autism have been saying for years, it also suggests we’ve been applying wrong ideas to therapeutic intervention for kids with autism.
In the report, scientists revealed the discovery of a part of the brain responsible for helping newborns turn their heads toward familiar faces is abnormally activated in individuals with autism, leading to increased anxiety due to overstimulation. Researchers said their results show pushing individuals to look therapists in the eye during behavioral sessions could be “counterproductive,” and doing so may create more anxiety.
“However, by not looking at the eyes, the person with ASD will continue to miss critical social information, and somehow one has to help them to gather all these important cues,” researchers stated in the report. “One possible strategy could consist in progressively habituating individuals with ASD to look into the eyes, analogous to the way surgeons habituate to look at open bleeding bodies, and then in incentivizing them to look at the eyes, finding a way to make eye contact somehow less stressful.”
These findings also reflect on the many apps that are built around modeling making eye contact and other socially expected behaviors for children on the spectrum, such as Ikor & Egor: Animation for Autism and Look in My Eyes: Steam Train, which may be doing more harm than good, according to some experts.
Dr. Susan Fletcher-Watson, who heads up the Development Autism Research Society, or DART, at the University of Edinburgh, argues that training autistic individuals to make eye contact is a bit like a left-handed person training themselves to write with the opposite hand.
“There’s no real evidence that improving eye-contact leads to better friendships or real world adjustment,” Fletcher-Watson says in a blog on DART’s site. “If eye contact makes the neurotypical community feel more comfortable, maybe it is our responsibility instead to learn to adapt to the interactive style of autistic people. If we’re so ‘socially skilled,’ then why are we so bad at doing this?”
History shows that eye contact is tied to our earliest survival instincts as a species, granting children with the ability to attract attention through eye contact a greater chance of being fed. Moreover, eye contact is associated with trust in Western society.
Then again, perspective is everything.
It is important to note differing cultural beliefs concerning eye contact. In the Japanese and Navajo cultures, for example, it is considered rude to make direct eye contact with strangers, elders, and people of the opposite sex. In the West, someone who seeks out and maintains eye contact is more likely to be viewed as a leader. Doctors are perceived to be more caring simply for looking their patients in the eye. Therefore, it’s easy to see how people with autism have been mistakenly labeled as being uncaring and lacking empathy toward others. And yet, the onus still seems to fall on the person with autism to meet people who are not on the spectrum with a confident and steady gaze, as opposed to the other way around.
Many in the autism community, including neurotypical parents raising children with autism, have learned to cope with this expectation and even come up with innovative ways to overcome the issue.
Kara Tyler, a 39-year-old Baltimore resident, is the mother of a 14-year-old girl with ASD. Instead of working against her brain, Tyler revealed how she taught her child to feign eye contact for the comfort of others, without inviting overstimulation.
“I taught my kiddo to look between people’s eyebrows,” she said. “People register it as eye contact and it doesn’t make them feel as on the spot.”
For Cogley, her focus remains the same: Removing the anxiety around her own sensory triggers, which include making eye contact.
“Eye contact is a choice that I’ve made for myself, and I pushed myself to learn it, so that I could accomplish it” she said. “Not everybody needs to have eye contact, or push their limitations. But I wouldn’t be where I am today with my sensory issues, if I didn’t push myself ... to do things that were uncomfortable and caused anxiety.”