While working at a Middle School, I created a "social skills" group for children who were on the Autism spectrum or who simply needed some work in the area of pragmatics (social skills). We started out the year discussing eye contact since it's something most kids with ASD (and middle schoolers in general) struggle with. They came up with the typical answers as to why we need to use eye contact:
- "it's the rules"
- "shows respect"
- "socially appropriate for our culture" (from a super smart kiddo who reads A LOT)
We then discussed why it would benefit them to maintain eye contact - you can read the speaker's facial expressions. I didn't want them simply to look at my eyes, I wanted them to look at my whole face and read my facial cues. Sometimes its not enough to simply listen for the tone of voice. Sometimes you need to see the facial expression too. Now, did they automatically just start looking at my eyes/face when talking to me? Nope. We had to practice. We did a simple exercise that can be done with most kids over the age of 3 or 4 (so that they understand the rules of the game).
The "game": It's a speech therapy version of red light/green light. One student (Student A) would stand at one end of the room. Another (Student B) at the opposite end, facing Student A. Student A would not be able to talk (silent games can really be the best). Instead, he/she would have to tell Student B to walk or to stop by his/her facial expressions. We chose happy to mean walk and neutral or mad to mean stop. Student B would have to look at Student A's face the entire time (until reaching Student A) to read the cues. It was great practice in making appropriate facial expressions and reading facial expressions. Once Student B reached Student A, Student B would take over making facial expressions and either Student A would have to read facial expressions or another student would take on that roll to "rotate" through the game.
What do you do if your child is not able to understand this game, but needs to work on eye contact? The game is even more simple, but sometimes more fun! Put a toy in the bag so that the child can't see it. Make a very excited/anticipatory facial expression, but don't say anything. When the child looks at your eyes, make your facial expression even more excited and take the toy out. Let the child play with the toy. Put another toy in the bag, take away the first toy and repeat. You are training the child that looking at your face means something and gets the job done (in this case, gets a toy).
These ideas have been adapted from the Relationship Development Intervention program created by Dr. Steve Gutstein. If you are a therapist and you work with Autistic children, I highly recommend the book! For some more information, check out: http://autism.about.com/od/treatmentoptions/a/RDI.htm or http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/relationship-development-intervention-rdi