I had the privelege a few months ago to listen to a panel comprised of teens and young adults with ASDs speak to a large group about what it is like for them to be autistic. The audience consisted of parents, teachers, and other teens and young adults. MJ, my 12 year old with AS began participating in some of the panels over a year ago.
During the question and answer portion of the presentation, a woman stood up and said, “I work with very young children. Can you give me some tips in helping them to make eye contact?”
I laughed (but not out loud) and rolled my eyes (I was in the back, so no one saw). I then smiled and thought about how far I’ve come since I said to the boys “Look at me”, in an effort to engage them. Five years ago, I might have even asked the same question as this woman.
It was Dr. Steve Gutstein who first pointed out the hilarity of asking for eye contact when what we really wanted was ‘joint attention’. My perspective on eye contact began evolving the day I first heard him speak.
After hearing Dr. Gutststein, I dropped the phrase “look at me” from my vocabulary. I didn’t replace it with anything for a long time and instead took sole responsibility for determining if I had my sons’ attention.
As the boys grew, I wanted them to take more responsibility for their part in interactions. Instead of reintroducing “look at me”, I began to use the phrase “listen to me”. I gradually replaced that with “I need you to show me know that you are listening to me” and “I can’t hear you well when you face away from me when you talk.” There are lots of ways for them to show me joint attention besides direct eye contact.
I still occasionally coach them to face me and reinforce the value of looking toward someone when you are speaking or listening. But I don’t think I’ve said “Look at me” in years.