I learnt that eye contacts with an autistic child do not matter even before I learnt the word Autism.
When we started noticing some unusual characters about my nephew, we couldn’t comprehend why. My nephew would not look at you no matter what threat you throw at him to do so. He couldn’t make words at the age other children were able to or trying to make words in the way children do.
I realised he understood what I was saying to him but he could not speak or respond in words. Because of his inability to make words, he got frustrated when I didn’t understand him. He once smashed a cup of tea and got himself burnt. He enjoyed being in his company.
Yet, sometimes when I tickled him, he giggled. I also learnt he was avoiding eye contact and when I insisted that he watched me in the eye , he would turn his face on the other side. He got frustrated and would throw himself on the floor and cried bitterly.
My nephew developed the habit of peeing on the centre table. I had a deep thought on what actions to take to halt this new habit of his. It was usual for him to pee on the table just after bath or after changing him. He was skilled at removing his pullups and peeing on the table. On this special day, as he attempted to do his usual ritual, I called on him not to do it. He didn’t look back. I repeated myself three times. No response. I sat down thinking of what next to say to make him heed to my call. Knowing very well how much he enjoyed watching ‘In the Night Garden’ on Ceebeebies, I reluctantly said ‘If you pee on that table today, I will turn the TV off’, I was shocked at how briskly he crawled backward and down and came over to be dressed up.
This incident made my relationship with him as easy as drinking a glass of water. It saved me the thoughts of whether he was listening, understood or could hear what I was saying. We didn’t need to have eye contact to understand each other. He laughed at my silly jokes and he understood when I was serious even without eye contacts.
His diagnosis two years later urged me to research what Autism was. I was introduced to new lexis and phrases. I also learnt that the inability of children with Autism to make eye contact was rather a fundamental problem. A 2013 study by researchers at the Albert Einstein college of medicine showed that their inability to make eye contacts had to do with the way their brains process information. In fact, insisting on getting eye contacts with an Autistic child could lead to anxiety.
While researchers may be finding out ways to approach the issue, it is very crucial that parents, carers, teachers and everyone working with Autistic children, understand that eye contacts do not matter when it comes to them.