I’ve been reading about the chronic trouble many people (me included) with NLD have making eye contact. I attempt to clear up some myths here, with quotes and paraphrases in purple and my comments in blue:
1) According to O.A.S.I.S. (Online Asperger Information and Support: http://www.udel.edu/bkirby/asperger/teachers_guide.html) educator and AS parent Elly Tucker, “don’t assume that because a child is not looking at you, he is not hearing you . . . she may hear and understand you better if not forced to look directly at your eyes.” That’s totally true. I’m still listening even though my gaze is inconsistent.
2) Tucker also points out that sometimes “forcing eye contact breaks [a person’s] concentration.” A reminder like this can also feel disciplinary or hostile, even if the person is just trying to clarify something. Many times, people with NLD and related conditions have grown up being harshly criticized. With less control over our readings of and responses to social stimuli, it makes sense that sometimes we have what seem like over-sensitive reactions. Sometimes semi-criticism is snuck into a conversation, though, so many times we’re not totally misreading, and more processing things in a different order (i.e., using our left-hemisphere strengths).
3) In 2006, a Cambridge study (http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html) focused on the cognitive activities of people when they make eye contact v. when they don’t. They believe that when people look away, their brains are processing complex stimuli that requires full concentration (i.e., situations that cause social anxiety and/or require memory recall). “Often children need some time adjust to a new environment (even the chair for AS subjects interfered with Stroop attention) and we need to remember to give them that time.” (A Stroop test measures how long a subject takes to react to stimuli.)
4) In an excellent short essay (http://specialchildren.about.com/od/aspergersyndrome/a/eyecontact.htm), Luke Jackson, a boy with AS, describes why eye contact is so challenging: “Sometimes it is too hard to concentrate on listening and looking at the same time.” This happens to me every time I talk to someone. Inevitably. I try looking at their noses or mouths, but am distracted by all else–arching eyebrows, eye blinks, shifting pupils, questions being asked of me, whose turn it is to speak, et cetera. Social dynamics are really, really hard.
Things that may help:
-Sharing that we have NLD and how we experience it in written, customized notes.
-Just telling someone beforehand that eye contact is really difficult, but we’re still listening even if our gazes shift.
-Going to places ahead of time.
-Using written communication whenever we can.
-Making a polite yet very pointed case for being able to use our talents, not be lumped into activities that capitalize on our weaknesses.