As parents we often focus our attention on the BIG development areas of our children. It is the natural instinct of every parent to monitor the first time baby sits independently, holds a spoon, feeds themselves, walks and talks. But what about eye-contact?
Most parents that I have spoken to in my career admit to not noticing their children’s ability to make eye contact until much later in their development. Some have admitted to not ever thinking about it as a “thing”..
What each parents should however know is that eye contact is a crucial part of a baby and young child’s development. Mostly because as a baby they can’t see very far and the ability to recognize facial expressions helps them understand new things and relationships.
Eye contact is also a form of nonverbal communication and eye contact along with joint attention are two vitally important skills that form the foundation for language and speech development.
Some say: “eye contact is an early predictor of language” and we also know that a lack of eye contact in a young child can be an indication of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
A young child not making eye contact does not automatically mean Autism – there are other criteria that would determine this which includes language/communication delays, social/emotional development delays and repetitive/restrictive behaviors.
So what does “making eye contact” mean? What is a parent supposed to know about eye contact? Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself when you have a toddler:
- Does my child make eye contact when I call his/her name?
- Does my child make eye contact when he/she is requesting attention?
- Does my child make eye contact during a conversation or interaction?
- Does my child make eye contact during group activities with family, friends or even strangers?
If you can answer yes to all these questions then you will know that your child does not have a problem with “making eye contact”. If you answer to 1 or 2 of the above is NO then you need to find out why your child is not making appropriate eye contact.
A few reasons why children may struggle with making eye contact:
- It could be a sign of an underlying “anxiety” also known as social anxiety;
- It could be brought on by “fear” or a dislike of a person;
- In very young children it could be an indication of “hearing problems” so when their name is called or a noise is made they will not respond by looking at the subject;
- It could be that the child is struggling to “focus” so he/she would rather look at the floor or away (attention problems);
- Visual Processing Difficulties that impedes fixation of eyes;
- Auditory Processing Difficulties can lead to a child rather looking at you mouth so they can try and interpret what you are saying in the same breath they may actually look at fixed objects to avoid distractions which in return helps them focus of what is being said;
- Sensor Processing Difficulties in which they find looking into another persons eye very intense;
- In a normal developing child a lack of eye contact can mean that he/she is trying to hide their emotions or feelings. It may be brought on by embarrassment or fear;
- It could stem from a cultural aspect – whereby direct eye contact is seen as a sign of disrespect
- It could be that the social motivations to make eye contact does not exist (which is common in children with Autism)
Avoiding “eye contact’ can be part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses. These can include Tourette’s, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADD or even reactive detachment disorder. There are also physiological reason why children do not make eye contact and it is our responsibility as parents and educators to understand the development difficulty so we can help the child overcome it.
Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, ABA, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum. Read more about this Johannesburg Autism School here.