Researchers from Durham and Northumbria Universities found that most people tend to look at others when talking to them, but look away when thinking; autistic children on the other hand, tend to look away when doing both.
The team studied children with autism, as well as those with Williams syndrome, and healthy children at a similar level of development and intelligence. They found that while under normal circumstances, all three groups of children would behave very differently in terms of eye contact and who they’re talking to, all of the children assessed tended to break eye contact and look away when they were thinking or remembering.
The researchers asked children to perform math problems, and found that all children made more errors when they were forced to look at the person asking the questions while they answered them. They concluded that holding eye contact is mentally demanding, so looking away while thinking is therefore beneficial when doing difficult tasks such as solving the problems.
Debbie Riby, the lead author on the paper, thought this was an important message to present to teachers and other people who work with children.
“One of the really important things for teachers to be aware of is that we shouldn’t expect children to keep looking at us, when they’re trying to think. And that goes for a teacher of a typically developing child, a child with autism or a child with Williams syndrome.
“If teachers work with pupils with autism, they also need to be aware that these children might be missing important non-verbal cues. We could encourage them to look at us when they’re listening, but we shouldn’t get that mixed up with when they’re thinking.”