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Fact or fiction: people with autism never make eye contact

There's a myth that people with autism avoid eye contact in conversations. This can come across as indifferent. Unjustified, stresses Jiayin Zhao, who is doing her PhD research on the socio-emotional development of children with autism. 'That people with autism don't care is anything but true.'

Jiayin Zhao, PhD
Jiayin Zhao, PhD

Jiayin Zhao, PhD: ‘This misconception may be since the psychiatric diagnostic criteria refer to autistic people as having difficulties in nonverbal communication behaviors used for social interaction, such as abnormalities in eye contact.

Hypersensitive to social stimuli 

Indeed, since autism was first described by psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1968, there has been an assumption that the lack of eye contact in autistic children implies social indifference. However, at least for some autistic people, this assumption may be far from the truth. Rather than being indifference, avoidance of eye contact may be because of being hypersensitive to certain social stimuli, which has been reported in a recent review.

'When autistic people try to fit into the picture that non-autistic people have painted, it can be such a struggle'


It is worth noting that for autistic people, looking someone in the eye when socially interacting may not be a natural thing, but may be a learned and practiced social skill. Autistic people often report something like: “Growing up I started practicing eye contact because I was taught that it showed respect and sincerity. But maintaining eye contact can be exhausting for me.”

We should not forget that what we see as ‘normal social behavior’ is determined by non-autistic people, so that when autistc people try to fit in, it’s often a struggle.’

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