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.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's Not What You Said... It's HOW You Said It!

Imagine a couple, Sarah and Simon, talked together about a recent spat. As they revisited their argument, Sarah asked Simon, "Why did you say that?".

How Sarah used tone could have made all the difference in Simon's deciphering of the question's meaning. Emphasis on the word "say" would most likely imply the Sarah's level of shock - the more emphasis on the word, the higher the shock.

"Why did you SAY that?" implies that Sarah thinks something shocking was said, or that Sarah was surprised by what was said.

However, let's imagine that Sarah put vocal emphasis (via tone increase) on the word
"you". This might imply a completely different message. It might imply a confusion not with what was said, but with the fact that Simon said it, rather that someone else.

"Why did YOU say that?" implies questioning who said it, not what was said.

Now let's suppose that Sarah assumes that her question's content is understood by Simon. But let's also assume that Sarah assumes that the question's TONE is understood, a tone which clarifies and qualifies the question's meaning.

If Simon has Asperger's, it's likely he'll understand the question's content meaning, but not the question's implicit meaning, its tone. He may answer the question that was asked, but not answer according to the WAY it was asked.

When receiving the answer to the content question, Sarah becomes frustrated. "Why don't you get it? You just don't get it!", she replies. Both are stumped and frustrated.

But understanding how people with Asperger's - and how people without Asperger's - interpret implicit communications like vocal tone can take all the mystery out of these kinds of misunderstandings.

Adults with Asperger's may have a hard time understanding the messages many send utilizing vocal tone. Being content-driven, they may not attend to changes in vocal tone which partially determine the meaning of verbal communications. Without a well developed sense of Theory of Mind to rely (the ability to attribute mental states(beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.) to oneself and others and to understand that those of others may differ from one's own), adults with Asperger's are often left playing a painful and confusing guessing game, especially during emotionally-charged interchanges.

How to Clarify Communications between Aspies and Non-Aspies

Clients have found success in limiting the amount of "guessing" occurring during interactions. Couples can do this by first understanding the differences in how they each process information, and consciously limiting the role tone plays in conveying information. This can be especially important during heated discussions, when tone can become escalated and overwhelming for people with Asperger's, causing withdrawal and avoidance.

If you and your partner are aiming to discuss a heated topic, you may benefit from two strategies:

1) Tone it down. This can be difficult when emotions are running high, but is necessary for productive communication. Try speaking quietly and calmly, using little intonation to get your point across. If you have Asperger's, let your partner know that his or her efforts to do so can help you listen and hear better when they are speaking to you.

2) Ask and answer. This technique is a form of active listening, a popular communication skill for any couple. It involves listening to what your partner has to say without interrupting. Aspies may benefit from looking away from their partner during this time. When your partner is finished talking, ask questions. "Do you mean...", "What I'm hearing is....", "Am I right in thinking you're saying...". Consider this technique to be information gathering. When you've asked all your questions, see if you can re-state your partner's message, getting the "gist" of it. Your partner's feelings of being heard can increase dramatically, and your sense of competence can, too.

But This Seems Like a Lot of Work!

It is. Having drastically different ways of taking in and processing information can make communication feel laborious. But it can also be a source of humor and fascination. Working to understand each other is in itself a step in the right direction, and though it takes patience and hard work, the rewards are significant.

For more information on research on communication and Asperger's see and

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