People with autism spectrum disorder avoid eye contact because it causes anxiety

My culture has taught me that eye contact is a sign of respect and empathy. As a teacher, I value eye contact because it’s a way students can assure me they are paying attention. (Lack of eye contact is also useful feedback; when I see too many students smiling vacantly while staring at something they are holding under the table, I know I need to shift my teaching tactics.) Today I learned something new about eye contact. I’m glad I have this opportunity to understand difference. (By the way, I fixed HuffPo’s original clickbaity headline for you: “Why Eye Contact Is So Distressing For People With Autism”)

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.

Xolie Morra and the Strange Kind lead singer Xolie Morra Colgey, who has autism, performing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Her focus remains the same: Removing the anxiety around her own sensory triggers, which include making eye contact.

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.


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. —Huffington Post

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