Monday, November 16, 2009
The Case for Mastering the Art of Eye Contact - Part I
Adults with Asperger's often have difficulties modulating appropriate eye contact. Because many do not pick up the skill automatically, they must decide whether to master it with direct intention and action. Appropriate eye contact is often fundamental to effective communication, so deciding to master the skill is a no-brainer, right?
Why do so many adults with Asperger's continue to avoid eye contact, even when they're aware the avoidance can cause others confusion or worse?
The answer may have to do with how Aspies experience eye contact and direct gaze. Research back in 2005 published in Nature Neuroscience lent some insight into why autistic children avoid eye contact: they perceive faces as an uncomfortable threat, even if they are familiar.
Kim M. Dalton of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her colleagues studied 27 autistic teenagers who looked at pictures of faces while a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine scanned their brains. Also tracked were the subjects' eye movements as they studied the images. When the image included a direct gaze from a nonthreatening face, brain activity in the amygdala--a brain region associated with negative feelings--was much higher for autistic children than it was in members of the control group. "Imagine walking through the world and interpreting every face that looks at you as a threat, even the face of your own mother," remarked study co-author Richard Davidson, also at UW-Madison.
The results also indicate that while a brain area associated with face perception, known as the fusiform region, is fundamentally normal in autistic children, it does exhibit decreased activity. This could result because the over-aroused amygdala makes an autistic child want to look away from faces. Further, when subjects with autism averted their gaze away from the eye region of a face, they showed reduced activity in the amygdala, suggesting that the gaze aversion is serving a functional purpose.
If you have Asperger's, you may want to pay attention to how you feel when making eye contact during conversation. Does it make you feel nervous? Overwhelmed? Frightened?
Little wonder many Aspies struggle to make eye contact while simultaneously tackling conversation, which may also be challenging. Is it worth it to Aspies to force themselves to make eye contact and endure the barrage of discomfort associated with it? This question is complex, both practically and philosophically. Yet it's widely agreed upon that decreased eye contact, or gaze aversion, during conversation can be interpreted as a sign of depression, dishonesty, disengagement, or any number of unpleasant messages.
Answering the question is further complicated by research on gaze aversion and its relationship to information processing. When people are engaged in difficult cognitive activity (e.g., retrieving information from memory, on-line processing, speech planning), they typically look away from the object upon which their attention had previously been focused (be it a face, book, VCR monitor, etc.). This tendency may be heightened in adults with Asperger's, who have an extra load of processing to deal with when making conversation, and an extra load of threat to deal with when making eye contact.
While there's little question that many folks with AS find eye contact unnecessary and/or unpleasant, there's also little question that most Aspies are capable of enduring enormous discomfort in their efforts to connect with others. Being informed and educated about your own reactions, and the basis for these reactions, to eye contact can be the first step in addressing changing your automatic tendencies when the benefits outweigh the challenges.
Stay tuned for tips on how you can work on selectively increasing your level of eye contact with others during conversation.