Eye contact causes “physical” distress in children with autism

Children find eye contact physically stressful and makes them feel uncomfortable, research has revealed.

The Massachusetts General Hospital, which published the study, said children with autism are often misunderstood when it comes to maintaining eye contact.

Autistic children can be perceived as being shy or indifferent, but this study backs up the theory that eye contact can be physically distressing.

When looking at brain scans of children with autism, the researchers found the brain can become “overstimulated” while holding eye contact.

Dr Nouchine Hadkikhani, author of the study, said: “The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern.

“Rather, our results show that this behaviour is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from over-activation in a particular part of the brain.

“The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioural therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them.

“An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain.”