Here’s An Aspergers Teaching Tip: Think With Your Eyes

aspergers teaching directed eye gaze

Thinking With Your Eyes: An Aspergers Teaching Tip

The eyes are the windows of the soul.  –English proverb

Many parents, teachers, and therapists assume that people with Aspergers don’t want to communicate.

It’s not true.

What most NT’s (neurotypicals) have hard-wired into their brains, Aspies (people with Aspergers) don’t:   social cognitive knowledge.

Michelle Garcia Winner, from Social Thinking, has pioneered an aspergers teaching tip that can help: establishing and maintaining eye contact.

Michelle Garcia Winner prefers the term, directed eye-gaze instead of the word eye contact.

The material for this post comes from Chapter Six of Michelle Garcia Winner’s book, Thinking About You, Thinking About Me: Teaching Perspective Taking And Social Thinking To Persons With Social Cognitive Learning Challenges.

Why Is Eye Contact So Important?

John Elder Robison named his best-selling autobiography Look Me In The Eye.   Many teachers, therapists, and parents, misunderstanding the autism spectrum, lecture Aspies to “look me in the eye.”

Unfortunately, looking someone in the eye does not always make sense to a person on the autism spectrum.

Ms. Garcia Winner points out that it’s not enough to just teach Aspergers people to “look me in the eye.”

Teaching a behavioral skill is one thing: but just like anyone else, people on the autism spectrum have to know Why directed eye contact is helpful to them:

Clearly, a person’s difficulties in gaining access to what other people are seeing affects his ability to understand other’s thoughts.  If we teach eye contact before the student has acquired the knowledge to support the skill, are we teaching the most efficient way?

Eyes feed the brain information about the possible thoughts and/or reactions of others.

Directed Eye Gaze Serves The Following Purposes

Per Ms. Garcia Winner, by directed eye gaze we can :

a) Monitor the emotional state of our interactive partner/s.

b) Consider whether the interactive partner is highly interested in the interaction or internally or externally distracted.

c) Monitor our interactive partner’s interest in the topic being discussed.

d) Demonstrate our interest to our partner.

e) Distinguish the facial features of the person that help us recognize him or her in future meetings.

f) Demonstrate our attention to our partner (even if we are secretly thinking about other things!)

g) Synthesize all the above information to develop a right response.

Assess Your Student’s  Social Knowledge About Eye Contact

Ms.  Garcia Winner shares this strategy she uses to assess any student’s social knowledge about eye contact when she meets him/her for the first time.

a) ask the student to follow your eyes and point to or tell you where you are looking
b) Make a guess and tell you what they think you are thinking about

Here Are Aspergers Teaching Tips For Teaching Students To Think With Their Eyes

1.  Eyes Are Like Arrows

Help your student understand that eyes are like arrows: they point toward what people are looking at.

Have your student draw a picture of eyeballs. 

Discuss how the white of the eye and the iris of the eye work together to show us in what direction the eyes are looking.  Draw some eyes on paper, showing different gaze directions.  Have the student then draw arrows to indicate the direction in which the eyhes are pointing.

You can do this next step yourself, or you can have another person be your volunteer.  One person looks at an object in the room for an extended period.  Help the student notice the movement of the eye in the socket and then relate that to the direction in which the person is looking with the iris.  According to Michelle Garcia Winner, even students who say that they don’t like looking in people’s eyes can sustain this attention because they know it’s for learning purposes.

2.  Teach That What A Person Is Looking At Is Often What They Are Thinking About

a)  When a student can consistently tell you where you are looking, you can then add the idea that where a person looks is associated with what she is thinking about.

For example,

when I am looking at the clock, I am thinking about time;

when I look at you, I am thinking about you!

b) Teach the student that you can see (understand) her/his thoughts based on where s/he is looking.

Keep this concept very simple.  At first, you just want the student to learn that you can see where s/he is looking.

For example, ‘I can see that you are looking at the candy.’;

‘I can see that you are looking at your friend’

You can make this into a fun game.

Let the student look around the room at different objects and let her know that you can see what she is looking at.  As you guess what the student is looking at, you can then expand this concept to let the student know that you know what she is probably thinking about.

“Since I see you looking at the ball, I know you are probably thinking about the ball.”

c) Bridge the concept of looking at objects in the room to looking at the teacher.

So, instead of asking the student to look at you in the future, Ms. Garcia Winner recommends you address the student this way:

“I see you are looking at the toys; that means you are thinking about the toys.  What do I expect you to think about now?”

By prompting your student to think about the connecting between the direction he is looking and the thought associated with the looking, you are reinforcing social thinking with one’s eyes.

3.  Putting It All Together: I Can See What You Think!

a) Use photographs from magazines or books where you can see the eye-gaze direction of the people in the pictures, such as the photograph at the beginning of this blog.  Have the student predict what or who the person is looking at based on where the person’s eyes are looking.

b) Design activities where the student has to make a guess about what you are thinking at that moment.  Constantly reinforce that what your student sees about you will help him make a good guess about what you are thinking.

4.  The Speaker Versus The Listener: Define The Difference In The Use Of Meaningful Eye Contact

As a parent/teacher/therapist, think about different social gatherings you attend in the community.  And think about these concepts while you are interacting in these settings.  You can then use these life examples to teach these concepts to your Aspergers students.

a) Laser Beams

The Listener needs to use her eyes like laser beams.  It’s helpful to think of one’s eyes as x-ray vision beams.   The Listener focuses intently on the face of the speaker, especially in social communication.  The slightest eye movements away from the speaker’s face can indicate a distraction or lack of attention on the part of the listener.  And the speaker will most likely assume that you are not interested in what she has to say.

b) Eyes Wandering While Thinking

It’s generally okay for the Speaker to let her eyes wander while she is thinking about and speaking her message, especially if what she’s thinking about requires deeper thought or language organization.  Listeners generally don’t think of the Speaker as overly distracted, as long as the Speaker is not gazing in one particular direction for a long time, or as long as the Speaker’s eyes don’t follow a moving target for a long time.

In conclusion, Michelle Garcia Winners’ material on social thinking shines because of her ability to break down difficult concepts into specific, easy to understand steps.  All of us, when learning, need concepts broken down and then put back together into a big picture.  And I believe you’ll find this material will do the same for your Aspergers students.

I hope this Aspergers teaching tip for Thinking With Your Eyes has been helpful to you!  Tell me how you’ll be implementing this for your own students or children!


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About Stephen Borgman

 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.
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