A study shows eye contact has nothing to do with empathy and we may need to rethink its importance in our society.
When Xolie Morra Cogley greets clients at her dog grooming business in Seattle, she struggles to make eye contact, a common trait among people with autism. Once the customers leave, eye contact with the dogs is much easier ― and essential.
Cogley, 37, who describes herself as an “autistic woman of all trades,” said she’s trained herself to keep eye contact with her four-legged charges to establish the essential leadership role in order to avoid aggression and bites.
People are a different story. But Cogley said they are understanding of her eye shifts when she explains why.
“I choose to tell them when I get the feeling that they are having a hard time understanding my different expression of anxiety,” she added.
Cogley, who has performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” with her band, Xolie Morra and the Strange Kind, stresses that she has made a conscious choice to educate others about her autism. However, she said she respects the feelings of those who choose not to discuss their diagnosis.
“Sometimes, people start to treat me differently, because they think I’m not paying attention,” she said. “Or [they don’t] understand some of the things that I do, like hand-flapping, when I’m overwhelmed.”
There’s another common misunderstanding, even among people educated on autism: that lack of eye contact indicates a lack of empathy or connection. The idea stems from British psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith, who coined the term “mindblindness” in the 1980s, referring to what they considered to bethe core deficit in autism. By their definition, this indicated a person with autism’s inability to employ the “theory of mind.” Baron-Cohen and Frith’s theory states that autistic people lack the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others.
However, findings in a new study appear to debunk this theory.
The study published in June in Scientific Reports reveals that people with autism spectrum disorder avoid eye contact because it causes anxiety, and not as an unintentional demonstration of lack of empathy. Not only does this validate what people with autism have been saying for years, it also suggests we’ve been applying wrong ideas to therapeutic intervention for kids with autism.
In the report, scientists revealed the discovery of a part of the brain responsible for helping newborns turn their heads toward familiar faces is abnormally activated in individuals with autism, leading to increased anxiety due to overstimulation. Researchers said their results show pushing individuals to look therapists in the eye during behavioral sessions could be “counterproductive,” and doing so may create more anxiety.
“However, by not looking at the eyes, the person with ASD will continue to miss critical social information, and somehow one has to help them to gather all these important cues,” researchers stated in the report. “One possible strategy could consist in progressively habituating individuals with ASD to look into the eyes, analogous to the way surgeons habituate to look at open bleeding bodies, and then in incentivizing them to look at the eyes, finding a way to make eye contact somehow less stressful.”