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Guest Blog: Eye Contact / Social Referencing / Joint Attention / Thinking with our Eyes - featured June 20, 2011

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Guest Blog: Eye Contact / Social Referencing / Joint Attention / Thinking with our Eyes

By: Suzanne Herman, M.Ed., CCC-SLP
Copyright April 2011. Reprinted with the express permission of the author as it appeared on her weblog

When dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the terms "eye contact, social referencing, and joint attention" are often part of the discussion. These terms all indicate a very similar skill involved in typical development.

Eye contact is a term often seen in treatment goals for children with ASD. Eye contact is simply looking at another person during a communication exchange (verbal or nonverbal). Very few of us neurotypicals can stomach looking directly into someone's eyes for any lenghth of time. It can, in fact, be creepy. So, I always struggled with the idea of teaching eye contact to children with autism. I would never try to teach a child to look into my eyes, though I have seen some try to teach this. Instead the child needs to learn to look at or towards the communication partner. I feel "eye contact" is a term that relates directly to whether or not a child has developed the skills involved in social referencing and joint attention. These areas are functional deficits seen in children with ASD. See this post, Social Skills: Social Stories, for a social story for higher functioning children regarding eye contact.

Joint attention develops in children between the ages of 9-12 months. It involves the ability to follow another person's eye gaze or pointing finger to gaze at an object together, or for the child to get the attention of another and direct them to look where the child is indicating.

Social referencing involves looking to a significant person in order to gage one's own emotional response. A child may not understand what is happening in a particular situation (for example the door suddenly swings open). He will look to his mother or father to see whether they express a specific reaction of alarm, humor, or calm. The child will often take his cue of whether everything is okay or if he needs to laugh or cry from the parent. Social Referencing example.

Michelle Winner's work gave me a better understanding of what was needed in addressing this area and how to go about achieving the goals. She uses the term "thinking with our eyes". So in the child with a high functioning ASD, teaching the importance of using our eyes to gain information from others or from the environment is one of the earliest lessons. The lesson starts simply as a game involving detecting what objects someone is looking at by following their eye gaze. It then progresses to determining what someone might be thinking about when looking at a particular object. The child learns that people look at things when they are thinking about them, thus when they are looking at something they are likely thinking about it. From there the child learns the importance of using his own eyes to look and think about things and others, to glean information this way, and to convey his own thoughts this way. For some reason, some children do not develop this skill intuitively; this is especially a problem in children with ASD. But once a child is taught the power of the eyes, natural "eye contact" develops.

I think that perhaps many of the difficulties in children with autism are linked to this specific area of deficit. The child may have trouble with making transitions or accepting change when he or she is unable to take in cues from the environment. Most of us are aware of the subtle indications that mark the winding down of one activity or the beginning of another one. The child who lacks the skills of social referencing or joint attention is at one moment enjoying an activity and in the next moment that activity is suddenly stopped or taken away. If they are unable to attend to the fact that another toy has been brought out for play or that it is time to transition to another activity, such as eating lunch, then they have no sense that a change was coming, or of why the change is occurring, or of what to expect next. It must be confusing, bewildering, and anxiety producing for them. Likewise, it may be part of the explanation as to why they have narrowed interests or prefer to play with the same toys or activities over and over. If they fail to attend visually or otherwise to their environments, then they do not learn how to do other activities or how to play effectively with a variety of toys. These refencing skills may be foundational to so many of the deficits we see in autism.

In younger children or children more severely affected by autism, activities to increase basic referencing skills are important. Stanley Greenspan's Floortime or Steven Gutstein's RDI (Relational Development Institute present activities to specifically work on these skills. Activities might involve the use of minimal speaking to increase the need to observe the communication partner and playing games that require the child to look at the communication partner in a natural and functional context such as interactive games of hide and seek, turn taking, imitation, or funny faces games.

Baby Games
Autism games website
Here are some nice videos:

RDI Emotion Sharing with Mommy
Social Referencing 1
Autism Follow My Eyes Game
Another RDI example

Please check back to this post as I will add ideas and samples as I come across them. Instead of a regular blog that adds endless new entries, I like to simply go back and edit my old topics with new info.

Our Featured Guest Blog/Author: Suzanne Herman, M.Ed., CCC-SLP

Thanks to Suzanne Herman for sharing her blog post with us. Please support our contributors and visit The Speech House

With over 27 years of experience in treating speech and learning disabilities, Suzanne Herman and her staff at The Speech House provide personable one on one treatment to each of their clients . Suzanne has been a licensed speech-language pathologist in Texas since 1983. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Speech Pathology graduating with honors in her programs of study. Her experience includes providing speech therapy services in a variety of settings: public schools, home health, hospital, and rehabilitation facilities (adult and pediatric), early childhood programs, MHMR workshop, private schools, and private clinics. Suzanne assumed ownership of this facility in 2000. She has received training in many methods of treatment including the PROMPT method, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), and sensory integration disorders. She has a special interest in the needs of children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders since there seems to be a shortage of appropriate therapy for this population.

Tags: Article Autism Newsletter 24 June 2011