The EYES Have It: How Eye Contact Can Transform Your Child

in your eyes–
the light the heat–
in your eyes–
I am complete–
in your eyes–
I see the doorway to a thousand churches–
in your eyes–
the resolution of all the fruitless searches–
in your eyes

— Peter Gabriel

The Power of Eye Contact

There is a dramatic, powerful human connection that takes place when two people gaze into each other’s eyes. Its effect has marveled people throughout time. Eye-to-eye gaze between two individuals can send the subconscious message, “I see you. I want to understand you; I want you to understand me. I care about you.”

In the animal kingdom, direct eye contact can be threatening and provoke a struggle for dominance. Human beings can also send an angry hostile message with one intense moment of eye contact. It has been said that the eyes are the window to the soul. Intense feelings can be projected through that vulnerable passageway.

I’ve heard of marriage therapists using eye contact techniques with their clients. A couple sits for a certain length of time facing one another, saying nothing, but looking into each other’s eyes. Something deep and meaningful happens when this exercise is done with sincerity. The beginnings of reconnection can be established.

The More, The Better

So how can eye contact help our disabled children? According to Science Daily, Dr. Roel Vertegal has conducted studies involving eye gaze and its effect on group participation and communication. Subjects who listened to a speaker were more inclined to make comments and participate when the speaker used eye contact. It didn’t seem to matter when the eye contact took place, but the more eye contact that was established, the more the listener would participate. You can read about the study by clicking here.

A 1996 Canadian study showed that when infants were deprived of eye contact with parents in the early months of life, their tendency to smile decreased. A British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that the ability for an infant to recognize familiar faces and even show signs of bonding was in direct correlation with the amount of eye-to-eye gaze.

Many children on the autism spectrum, or those who struggle with ADHD, hyperactivity, etc. often have difficulty making eye contact. Children with Tourette Syndrome have also been shown to avoid eye-gaze. There are various theories on why this occurs. But ultimately, without the ability to maintain eye contact for any length of time, a child’s ability to empathize, communicate, and connect is severely limited. Yet as parents we can get into the habit of using eye contact only very infrequently. We talk to our kids while reading the paper, or paying bills. We hear them, even look at them, but don’t see them as often as we should.

Here are some ways you can promote eye contact with your child:

  1. As you go about your daily activities, count the number of times your child actually looks at your eyes. When does it usually happen? Is it when he wants something? During a particular game? When you sing songs? Use this information to find his motivators.
  2. During floor time play, sit facing your child and make many attempts to look at her during your exchanges. As you speak, look into her eyes. Try to increase the frequency and duration of eye gaze. Start with small successes and set goals for improvement.
  3. Use motivators. Find a toy or object that is stimulating to your child. Withhold it temporarily and say, “look at my eyes.” Reward the child for good eye contact.
  4. Use “playing dumb” techniques to encourage your child’s use of language. As your child requests what he wants, get down to his eye level and look at him inquisitively while you’re listening. Typically a child who is motivated and really wants something, like a cookie or drink, will make some kind of eye contact during the request, especially if you’re pretending not to understand. (Click on the link to learn about the “playing dumb” technique.)
  5. Try to make better eye contact with all the people you have relationships with. Your spouse, co-workers, children, and relatives will start feeling a greater sense of connectedness to you. Parents need practice too. And besides, you’ll be more in the habit of using it with your special child.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.