Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.” And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.
Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.
Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.
To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?
Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us. In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.
Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?
Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.
Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.
But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)
The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.
No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.
At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.
And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.
Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face. The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala. Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”
But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).
So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.
We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.
In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.
Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.