Why is Eye Contact Difficult for Autistic People?

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While eye contact is an essential part of communication, many autistic people can find it difficult. Find out why eye contact is important in both personal life and professional life; if there are any links between eye contact, sensory sensitivity, and social anxiety; and how to support someone with autism who struggles with eye contact.

Why is eye contact important?

Eye contact is when two people look at each other’s eyes at the same time. It is a form of non-verbal communication that people use to communicate many forms of emotions.

Humans can easily see where other humans are looking because of the amount of white that surrounds their irises. As a result, humans know where they are looking even when their heads don’t move.

Eye contact is important because it:

  • Enables people to bond with others.
  • Displays honesty.
  • Increases resistance to persuasion.
  • Improves understanding between people.
  • Builds respect.
  • Communicates confidence.
  • Increases focus.
  • Fosters connection.
  • Expresses surprise.
  • Builds trust.
  • Helps people concentrate.
  • Encourages others to listen.
  • Shows that the other person has accepted your message.
  • Increases engagement from others.

How autism shapes social interactions.

People with autism can have difficulties with social interactions in the following ways:

  • Starting or holding conversations.
  • Understanding non-verbal communication cues such as body language and facial expressions, both of which give context to what is being said.
  • Making and maintaining eye contact.
  • Talking about something that is outside of their special interests.
  • Understanding non-literal language, such as sarcasm, idioms, and metaphors.
  • Understanding when people use language to hide their feelings or words in a way that doesn’t make their meaning clear.
  • Accepting touch, thus finding hand-shaking and big groups or crowds confronting.
  • Filtering out less important information, such as background noise.
  • Seeing other people’s points of view.
  • Altering interactions to suit environmental or social contexts, such as changing behaviour when visiting grandparents compared to peers, or work colleagues.

One more positive way that autism shapes social interactions is that autistic people often see things that other people don’t notice, such as small details, hear every leaf rustling in the wind, and make connections that other people don’t make.

In the Ambitious about Autism video about communication, some young people explain how their autism affects communication:

  • Josef sometimes finds it difficult to talk to other people but at other times, he finds it easy to talk to them depending on his mood. He also uses his hands a lot when he talks because he likes doing this.
  • When a day goes bad for Kieran, he finds that he can’t speak very well.
  • Georgia sometimes takes things quite literally with often hilarious consequences. She understands logically how sarcasm and metaphors work, but she might struggle to pick them up in the moment.
  • Josefina tries to study people’s behaviour, thoughts, and actions, and doesn’t know what to do. She sometimes finds that she will say something that sounds accidentally blunt or insensitive, but she won’t know until the person becomes evidently cross with her.
  • Rayhan advises non-autistic people to take their time and get to know people with autism. He also advises them to ask one question at a time.
  • Georgia needs a lot of processing time to help her understand information that she has been told or information that she has read. This will also prevent her from getting overwhelmed and overloaded to the point of not remembering everything.

Sensory sensitivity and social anxiety

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Some common reasons why people with autism find it hard to maintain eye contact are due to sensory sensitivity, such as sensory overload, and social anxiety. They might struggle to focus on the person they are talking to because they find it too much or they might find eye contact difficult in social situations.

Anxiety is the most frequently co-occurring mental health concern in autism. Prevalence rates are at least five times higher in autistic individuals than in non-autistic individuals. Autistic individuals who have heightened anxiety symptoms often experience more cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties than autistic individuals who do not experience anxiety.

Issues with sensory processing are common in autism and those who are high in autistic traits. It is estimated that sensory processing ranges from a prevalence of 69% to 93% in autistic individuals compared to non-autistic individuals. In the case of eye contact, an autistic person may experience sensory hyperresponsiveness, such as seeing too many people at once, and may exhibit sensory defensive behaviour, such as covering their eyes. People with autism who are hyporesponsive may also avoid eye contact with others by peering at inanimate objects from different angles for long periods of time.

Navigating eye contact in personal and professional life.

According to the British social psychologist Dr. Michael Argyle, people from western countries and Europe tend to hold eye contact for an average 61% of the time: 41% while talking, and 75% while listening.

Here are some tips to maintain eye contact in personal life or professional life:

  • Do not feel pressured to make eye contact 100% of the time. This amount of eye contact would be considered too much.
  • The amount of eye contact people use changes depending on if they are speaking or listening. It is normal to look away in various directions when thinking or processing information.
  • Percentages of eye contact may vary in countries outside of Europe and western countries.
  • People who are neurodiverse, including those with autism, can have difficulty with maintaining eye contact because of the overstimulation it creates.

These tips are more relevant for maintaining eye contact in personal life:

  • Making eye contact before one person talks to the other.
  • Holding gazes for 4 to 5 seconds at a time.
  • Using gestures.
  • Moving eyes slowly.
  • Maintaining eye contact 50% of the time.

These tips are more relevant for maintaining eye contact in professional life:

  • Making eye contact with everyone around the conference table during an in-person meeting in a way other than moving eyes clockwise or anti-clockwise around the table.
  • Looking at the device’s camera/webcam during an online meeting instead of each individual person at a time.
  • Looking at the audience in a triangular pattern (i.e., from the bottom-left to the bottom-right and then the top) during a small group presentation.
  • Sitting with your writing hand closest to the employee you are giving feedback to.

How can you support someone with autism who struggles with eye contact?

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Besides not pressuring someone with autism to make eye contact, here are some tips to support them if they struggle with it:

  • Be patient with the autistic person. Understand that they might find it uncomfortable or overwhelming. Rushing them to make eye contact will only make it more stressful.
  • Recognise sensory overload and create a safe and quiet space where the autistic person will feel secure and more likely to engage in eye contact.
  • Praise and rewards can encourage the autistic person to make eye contact willingly.
  • Use the autistic person’s interests as ways to connect and encourage eye contact.
  • Visual tools like social stories and schedules can help the autistic person understand when and why eye contact is important.
  • Using subtle visual cues or prompts can remind the autistic person to make eye contact without pressuring them.
  • Show the autistic person that eye contact is a natural part of communication.
  • If the autistic person is young, encourage them to imitate you making eye contact during conversations or play.
  • Also, if the autistic person is young, incorporate games and activities that make eye contact fun, such as I Spy or storytelling.
  • If necessary, seek help from therapists who are experienced in autism to develop strategies that will suit the autistic person’s needs.


Eye contact is important for various reasons. Autism can shape communication both positively and negatively. There are links between eye contact, sensory sensitivity, and social anxiety. There are different ways to navigate eye contact in personal life and professional life. There are also many ways to support an autistic person who struggles with eye contact.

If you think you might be autistic, please take our free online autism test. Please note that the test is not intended to diagnose autism. Only a qualified health professional can make a formal diagnosis.

Blog Author

April Slocombe