Have you been told your toddler or preschooler can’t possibly be autistic because they have good eye contact?
Are you aware that this is outdated thinking?
It’s a thing: Parents being told that their young child can’t possibly be autistic because he or she can give eye contact.
But this is very outdated thinking. It’s along the same vein as, “You can’t be autistic because your job involves customer service.”
The absence of eye contact as a possible sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder does not mean that the presence of eye contact rules out ASD.
Meghan Ashley, MS, LPC, has two clinically diagnosed autistic sons, six and eight.
“Neither of my children ever had issues with eye contact,” says Meghan, a professional therapist who runs M Perfect Consulting.
“They both use eye contact daily and have never refused to look at anyone in the eye.
“The eye contact thing is frustrating, as I have been told the same thing [that they can’t be autistic because they give eye contact] about my boys.
“Family and strangers have been the most people who say that they can’t be Autistics due to them having good eye contact.
“They say it based on misinformation, so I understand the confusion, but it is still invalidating.
“They don’t give too much eye contact either or stare intently at people.”
I was diagnosed with ASD in the springtime of 2022.
I can win a staring contest, though I need to be upfront by pointing out that if I had ever had struggles with eye contact as a toddler and preschooler, I certainly don’t recall it.
However, I remember a lot of my childhood beginning from age five, and I have zero recollection of anyone ever telling me, “Look people in the eye when they speak to you.”
In my extensive research on eye contact in autism (yes, it’s become a special interest since my diagnosis), I came across a post on autismforums.com by a parent who said their toddler was denied an ASD diagnosis because of normal eye contact.
A second assessment by a different provider was given, and the toddler was diagnosed autistic.
There was a writing group I was a member of, and one of the men had a two-year-old who’d been diagnosed autistic. He said the toddler had good eye contact.
If a young child with normal eye contact is given a diagnosis of autism, you should not assume that this was a misdiagnosis!
“With my oldest son I noticed his toe walking and rigid thought process first,” says Meghan, referring to early signs of autism that she had noticed.
“His pediatrician mentioned testing when he was about two years old, but we didn’t start until he was three and had begun banging his head on the floor at daycare when upset.
“He was also a very advanced baby and was feeding himself early and walking well before he turned one.
“He also loved other kids and to play, but did not pick up on social cues and had awkward play with others.
“He was diagnosed as autistic when he went to pre-K in public school, and from the first day he was overwhelmed with the amount of students in the general education rooms and was not able to focus or stay calm and seated.”
This young autistic boy has normal eye contact.
“With my youngest son we noticed that he seemed to be in his own head a lot,” continues Meghan.
“From a few months old he would just stare at sunsets, or fans, or spots in the distance for long periods of time without making a sound.
“By age three he only said three to five words and was evaluated and diagnosed autistic.
“He never cared for other children and played alone all the time and walked away when other kids tried to engage him including his brother.
“He would also play with things like paper towels by throwing them in the air and watching them float to the ground.
“He rarely played with actual toys and preferred things like masking tape and ribbons that he could make fly in front of a fan.”
This little boy with ASD, too, has normal eye contact.
Christina Collura’s nine-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at three-and-a-half.
“My son does make eye contact, and one of the things people have said is, ‘How can he have autism when he makes eye contact?’” says Christina, a kindergarten teacher and creator of chalkboard-based educational products for children of all abilities.
“There was a very clear discussion [with an evaluator] about the fact he did make eye contact, and that was a clear questionable symptom that came up.
“Luca will come right up to you when he is speaking to look into your eyes while he is talking.
“I get the feeling that he is trying to tap into your emotions and how you feel.”
What if the examiner says YOUR child can’t be autistic because of good eye contact?
If an examiner says that your child can’t possibly be on the Autism Spectrum due to having good eye contact – you’ll want to seek out a second opinion by a different provider — especially if you have a gut or intuitive feeling that your child’s other traits suggest autism.
Examples might be a preoccupation with unusual things such as a fascination with watching liquids being poured into containers, water swirling down a drain, objects that spin, and what appears to be difficulty integrating with other children, distress over changes in routine and stimming behaviors such as rocking, collar chewing, finger flicking or other repetitive motions.
It’s smart to find out if an autism assessor puts emphasis on the presence of normal eye contact.
Though “abnormalities with eye contact” can present quite often in children and adults with ASD, this is not a requirement for a diagnosis, according to the mental health professional’s manual, the DSM-5.
Meghan Ashley, MS, LPC, is a professional therapist who runs M Perfect Consulting. She provides services for anxiety, autism, behavior issues, divorce, family conflict, grief/loss, life transitions, marriage, sadness/depression and more.
Christina Collura is the owner of Creative Beginning and its Chalkboard Based Puzzles which include a basic name puzzle, a number board and the full alphabet board. These tools benefit both neurodiverse and neurotypical young children.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.