Increasing Children's Social Skills--Eye Contact

"I am not expecting for my child to be the life of the party, or a social butterfly. I just want her to be happy and have some friends of her own." Many parent of children with social difficulties echo this sentiment. They know that their child has many wonderful qualities to offer others, but the nature of their social difficulties often preclude them from establishing meaningful social relationships. This disappointment is amplified when parents know that their child wants desperately to have friends, but fail miserably when trying. Sadly, often their failure is a direct result of ineffective teaching and inadequate resources (i.e., social skill groups) typically necessary for social skills intervention.

Many people do not understand the complex integration of skills required for social success. Effective social skills, even for the most capable of us, require a combination of language skills, emotional regulation, and perspective taking. For children with developmental delays, such as autism spectrum disorders, the odds are stacked against them from birth.

Defining "good social skills" in children is a natural starting point. Most people's definition consists of conversation skills, manners, interrupting, etc. While all of these are practical answers, they are quite sophisticated and can be seen as "the icing on the social skills cake". For children lacking in social skills, important foundational skills must be in place and refined throughout their lives.

One of the foundational skills of effective social interaction is "eye contact". People often talk about the importance of eye contact, which is traditionally taught by saying "look at me". However, merely teaching someone to gaze at other people's eyes leads to a social "dead-end".

Thehighlight should be placed on teaching children all of the various payoffs they accrue from studying the eyes, faces and bodies of social partners. We need to instruct children to look socially, for a reason. We also need to make eye contact functional for children. The reason we look at one another is to gain more information, to reference one another, and to anticipate actions. Therefore, continually prompting children to "look at me" is not always effective.

The following are some activities to improve your child's abilities to "look with a reason". You will notice that not a lot of language is used in these activities. The idea is to teach the child to look, attend to social cues, and reference others. There is no need to confuse the child with too many cues and too much language.

1. Hold a favorite object to your face and when eye gaze occurs, give the item to your child. Change this by holding up a preferred object off to one side, point to it, then bring it back to your face - as eye gaze tracks the preferred item, give the item to your child.

2. Put two objects on a table (slowly increase the number of items based on your child's success). The child must decide what you are looking at or what you want by following your eyes.

3. Build a "nonverbal tower". Sit at a table, across from your child. Place three blocks in a row on your side of the table. Place your hands behind your back in an exaggerated fashion, so that your child can see that you will not have use of your hands. Without words, communicate to your child that you want him to take one of the three blocks and place it in front of you (you can use sound effects, head movements, nods, head shakes and facial expressions—only point if you absolutely have to!) Repeat the process with the other blocks. Try and reverse this activity if your child is willing.

Daria O'Brien, MS CCC-SLP is the founder of Pompton Speech Plus in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, a practice focusing on communication and social skills groups for children with autism and language-based learning difficulties. Visit for more information about Ms. O'Brien and her practice.

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