Maintaining eye contact can sometimes be difficult for autistic folks. Practice and therapy can help, but they’re not the only way to build relationships.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term used to describe a broad range of neurodevelopmental differences and disabilities. When someone is autistic, they may experience challenges with communication, social interaction, and behaviors.

Outside of verbal communication, eye contact is one of the many ways that humans communicate with each other nonverbally. Yet many autistic people find it difficult to look directly at or maintain eye contact with other people when communicating.

Below, we explore the relationship between autism and eye contact, including tips on how to become more comfortable with eye contact as an autistic adult.

Nonverbal communication refers to the way that people communicate through body language and expressions. One common form of nonverbal communication is eye contact, or looking at another person’s eyes.

For a significant percentage of autistic people, eye contact isn’t just difficult — it’s downright uncomfortable. In fact, one of the diagnostic criteria for autism is challenges with nonverbal communication like maintaining eye contact.

One reason why autistic folks may experience challenges with nonverbal communication skills is because of underlying changes in certain areas of the brain.

In one major study from 2022, researchers found differences in the brain activity of autistic people and neurotypical people during periods of eye contact.

According to the study results, the dorsal parietal region of the brain was less active during eye contact in autistic folks than in neurotypical folks. In addition, changes in this area of the brain were associated with social performance in autistic participants.

Can autistic people be OK with eye contact?

Some autistic people experience more difficulties when it comes to different aspects of communication. But plenty of autistic folks can engage in nonverbal communication, including eye contact, with little issue or discomfort.

Ultimately, autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that it affects different people in different ways. The challenges and strengths that one autistic person faces may be completely different from the challenges that another autistic person experiences.

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It can be difficult for neurotypical people to understand why some autistic folks experience communication challenges.

But just because we view certain behaviors as “typical,” we shouldn’t force people to engage in them. In fact, the pressure for autistic folks to act in a neurotypical way can lead to autistic masking — a strategy that some autistic people use to appear more neurotypical.

When an autistic person masks during communication, for example, they may force eye contact, imitate gestures and facial expressions, speak in scripted replies, or hide their stimming — and learn to suppress their own emotions and needs as well.

Masking can sometimes benefit autistic folks in different ways, but a 2021 research analysis suggests that it can also lead to anxiety and depression, loss of identity, and worse mental health. Masking behaviors can also make it difficult for someone to receive an accurate diagnosis of autism.

As with any other skill, it takes practice to become more comfortable communicating nonverbally. If you’re an autistic person who wants or needs to learn how to maintain eye contact, here are some tips you can try:

  • Practice with friends: If you’re nervous about jumping into making eye contact with strangers, consider practicing with someone you trust first. By practicing with a friend or relative, you can gradually become more comfortable with it in a familiar setting.
  • Adjust your gaze: Another way to ease your way into getting better at eye contact is to practice looking at other areas of a person’s face. For example, glancing at someone’s nose or lips can make it easier to remember to glance at their eyes.
  • Don’t force yourself: It can feel uncomfortable to communicate using eye contact when you’re not used to it, but everyone communicates differently. If there are other forms of communication that you’re more comfortable with, remember that those are valid, too.
  • Remember the end goal: Ultimately, most neurotypical people interpret maintained eye contact as you being engaged in what they’re saying. Practicing other active listening techniques may be able to achieve a similar result.

Working with a therapist can also be a great way to find a healthy balance between your needs and the needs of your family, coworkers, or partners.

Sensory integration therapy is sometimes used to help autistic people process overwhelming stimuli. It may be able to help you adjust to sustained eye contact as well.

Eye contact is one of the many ways that we can show interest, express our feelings, and so much more. However, many autistic folks may find that maintaining eye contact is difficult or even uncomfortable — which can sometimes make communication and relationships challenging.

It’s important to remember that different forms of communication are valid, even if they don’t involve eye contact. And if you’re interested in learning how to become more comfortable with maintaining eye contact as an autistic person, a little practice here and there can help.