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.