Eye (and hand) contact

Philip has poor eye contact with others. It is just another symptom of his possible Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a source of frustration because it is yet another roadblock in determining whether he is listening to me or understanding what I am saying.

I’ll never forget the day that Philip had his 2-year wellness check. Peter had an appointment, so I had to take Philip by myself.  That was the day the pediatrician ordered a speech evaluation and suggested we get Philip’s hearing tested. She said these were the first steps to determining why Philip didn’t respond to his name and hadn’t yet begun to talk. As she tells me this, he spins in the office, repeatedly pushing the button on his toy to make the lights flash and music play. She then adds that she will wait until she hears back about these tests before determining if she wants to refer him to “other specialists.” The doctor didn’t mention autism at the time, but I had already had my suspicions.

When we exited the office, she gave me a pretzel rod to give to Philip. I offered it to him, but he was busy looking at the aquarium in the reception area. “Make sure he is looking at you when you talk to him,” said the doctor. I tried to turn his head to me, but he quickly turned his attention back to the fish as he took the pretzel from my hand.

We got to our car in the parking lot, and I cried. I felt like I had failed Philip.

Since that time, we’ve seen some improvements in Philip’s interactions and communication. Preschool has made such a big difference.  But even before that, there have been times when Philip can make amazing eye contact with me. Sometimes he will stare at me. To accomplish this, he grasps my face, one hand on each cheek, and draws me closer to have a good look.

When we went to the school so they could show us the PECS system, both teachers remarked when Philip handed me the picture of a fruit snack and looked me in the eye while doing so. Later, when his speech therapist came to our home to follow-up on the PECS training, we laughed when Philip handed me the picture of ball while giving me a dirty look. There was no other way to describe his expression that day when he wanted me to give him the toy.

I didn’t laugh over the weekend when Philip made eye contact. A new, fun thing that he recently discovered is standing on our bed, leaning over to the bookcase beside it, and pushing the buttons on the clock radio. He has managed to change the time by doing this. I figured that he has plenty of toys to play with, so it is okay for me to set a limit and tell him he can’t touch the clock.

Saying “no” doesn’t always work. Ironically, just looking at him will sometimes work. I think he knows that he is not supposed to play with the clock. In fact, he often waits until I leave the room to have another go at it.

So, this past weekend, when I saw Philip reaching for the clock, I stood between him and his objective. He looked me right in the eye and smacked my face.

It wasn’t hard. It didn’t physically hurt me. But it was upsetting. I realize that, not having language limits Philip’s ability to express his feelings. It’s not surprising that he would use gesture and physical contact to let me know when he doesn’t like something. I think that Philip looked at me to gauge my reaction. I think he wanted to know if I got his message.

When he hit me again later, he repeated the same, direct eye contact. It’s the best I’ve ever seen from him. I can’t even remember what I was preventing him from doing. I just remember trying not to react. Not knowing how to react. I didn’t want him to think he was accomplishing anything by hitting me. So I did nothing. I just carried on with redirecting him to an appropriate toy.

********

I called Peter during my lunch break today.

“Any reports from school?”

“Yes-he got yelled at.”

“Why?”

“For throwing a toy. But Mrs. T was happy.”

Mrs. T is Philip’s speech therapist.

“He cried when she yelled at him, but he looked at her.”

 

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