Ask the Experts

ADHD, ODD, and Eye Contact

“My son, who has attention deficit, won’t look in the eyes of people who are speaking to him — a common sign of oppositional defiant disorder.”

It’s great that you are staying on top of your son’s challenges. Eye contact is a critical social skill. Studies show that if you don’t make and maintain eye contact when talking with people, they will find you less likable.

For many kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), making eye contact is challenging. According to experts, kids with ODD look away from the person they’re talking with. I wonder why your son focuses on a person’s mouth rather than on the eyes. Is he having trouble understanding what is being said?

If so, your son may have an auditory processing disorder (APD). Kids with ADHD may also have this disorder. Perhaps he should see an audiologist and rule out or confirm APD.

[Screener: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

Either way, here are some ways to teach your son make eye contact. Watch TV together and point out to him characters in shows as they make eye contact. Another approach is to teach him to focus on a spot between someone’s eyes, if that is more comfortable for him. Placing a colored dot in between your eyes is a good way to teach this skill.

An adult client of mine had trouble maintaining eye contact. She did not look at a person’s face while they were speaking, but she was able to repeat every word he or she said. I still remember her response: “So doc, you are telling me that even though I can repeat every word they said, people won’t think I’m really listening because I am not looking at a special place on their face? So who has the problem?”

She’s right, but looking in a person’s eyes is important in social discourse. Working with your son to develop this skill will help him maintain friendships.

Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. As an ADHD sufferer, I have always found solid eye contact difficult, although a good friend once helped me to improve it a little. Until she mentioned it, I was unaware that it posed a ‘problem’ for most people and I began to dwell on it, despite being able to slightly improve it. It is not normally down to just behaviour, being oppositional or even co-morbidity (unless co-morbid with Autism). ADHD falls into the same umbrella as Autism, and eye-contact can be a part of it.
    The main reasons for lack of good eye-contact are:
    1. Looking away to try and find words and to concentrate on what is being said.
    2. Looking away when they are trying hard to maintain interest in the conversation (they probably know where the conversation is going, and/or are feeling impatient).
    3. Feeling distracted and unsettled (simply not wanting to be involved in a conversation at that point, and again, impatient).
    4.Something the speaker is wearing or a physical trait can be highly distracting. A woman wearing an interesting necklace, cleavage, big shiny earrings, a beard, big eye-brows (especially with one sticking our at an odd angle), interesting coloured clothing with eye-catching designs, hats, beads, tanned skin, extra white skin, very blue eyes etc etc etc – can all send the ADHD person off down into the rabbit hole where they lose eye-contact.
    There is also the fact that ADHD people are acutely aware that eyes are a vital part of life – both in seeing and being seen. Someone looking intently into their eyes can be overwhelming and intense as though seeing inside their very soul.
    Remember that ADHD not only affects the concentration, but affects the way that they think, and often the overwhelming nature of many thoughts crowding into their brains can provoke a similar response and show a lack of interest or eye-contact, when really, they are going into self-protect mode.
    It is entirely possible to teach a person with ADHD how to improve their eye-contact, however they must never, ever be made to feel like it’s a problem or it will stay with them for always. They must be allowed to forfeit a percentage of eye-contact in order to address their needs in that moment.

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