close up photo of human eye

Why Does ADHD Affect Eye Contact?


Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with concentration, impulse control, and hyperactivity. While not officially part of the diagnostic criteria, many individuals with ADHD also struggle with social communication and interaction.

One common challenge is making and maintaining appropriate eye contact during conversations. For neurotypical individuals, eye contact comes naturally and is an important part of nonverbal communication. However, those with ADHD often find direct eye contact uncomfortable or overwhelming.

Understanding the reasons behind this difficulty can help people with ADHD, as well as their loved ones, teachers, and employers, to have realistic expectations and implement strategies to improve eye contact skills.

Sensory Issues Can Make Eye Contact Uncomfortable

Some theories suggest that the abnormal dopamine signaling in the brains of those with ADHD is tied to problems with sensory modulation. Essentially, they have a hard time regulating input from the five senses, filtering important information from background noise.

Making direct eye contact provides a flood of visual stimuli. The eyes are complex, containing many colors, shadows, flecks, veins, and other intricate details. Staring into someone’s eyes means taking in all of this visual information, which can quickly become overwhelming.

Individuals with ADHD describe the intense focus needed to maintain eye contact as uncomfortable or even painful. They may instinctively want to look away or close their eyes to reduce the sensory overload.

Trouble Focusing Makes Eye Contact Difficult

By definition, people with ADHD struggle to focus their attention and filter out distractions. Maintaining eye contact requires activating and sustaining attention on one specific sensory input – the other person’s eyes.

Simultaneously, the individual must continue processing auditory input to listen and comprehend the conversation. The attentional demands of eye contact may exceed the mental resources of someone with ADHD, making it extremely difficult to listen and look at the same time.

Rather than overload their working memory, individuals with ADHD instinctively look away, redirecting their attention to listen more effectively. They tend to fixate on visual details or scan the environment instead.

Reading Social Cues is Hard for ADHD Brains

Making appropriate eye contact requires intuitively understanding social norms and cues. Individuals with ADHD often struggle to pick up on subtle nonverbal signals that tell them when to engage eye contact and when to break it.

They may not grasp the concept that eye contact demonstrates interest, attention, and engagement. Without this innate comprehension, making eye contact does not come naturally as a social behavior.

Lacking intrinsic motivation, individuals with ADHD only learn to make eye contact through explicit teaching. Even then, regulating eye contact remains a conscious effort rather than an unconscious habit.

Emotional Dysregulation Affects Eye Contact

ADHD involves poor emotional self-regulation. When eye contact elicits strong feelings, individuals with ADHD have trouble modulating their emotional reactions. This contributes to avoiding eye contact.

For example, eye contact tends to increase arousal and anxiety. Without the tools to calm themselves, people with ADHD look away to minimize emotional discomfort. They may also avoid eye contact to escape unwanted feelings of shame or vulnerability.

On the other hand, eye contact can feel emotionally intense in a pleasurable way. But this sensation rapidly becomes overstimulating. Again, the individual looks away to regulate their emotions.

Why Eye Contact Matters for Social Functioning

Although avoiding eye contact is an instinctive coping mechanism for those with ADHD, it can significantly impact relationships, school, work, and other aspects of social functioning. Understanding these effects makes clear why improving eye contact skills is necessary.

Appearing Rude, Untrustworthy, or Disinterested

In neurotypical social interaction, lack of eye contact implies rudeness, dishonesty, disrespect, boredom, or lack of interest. These instant judgments can harm relationships and reputations.

For example, avoiding a teacher’s eyes may seem like defiance. Job interviews often hinge on the applicant making a trustworthy impression through eye contact.

Difficulty Connecting and Forming Relationships

Eye contact helps establish rapport and emotional bonds between individuals. Without this nonverbal cue, people with ADHD may struggle to initiate and maintain close relationships.

Their avoidance can make them appear aloof or indifferent. Friends and family may feel hurt and rejected when expected eye contact is not provided.

Problems with Authority Figures

Limited eye contact often causes more issues for those with ADHD when interacting with authority figures, like parents, teachers, or supervisors. The lack of eye contact is interpreted as willful disobedience or disrespect.

Because eye contact correlates with being truthful and trustworthy, those with ADHD may not be believed when they cannot maintain gaze with an authority figure.

Challenges in School and Work Environments

Classrooms and offices require attentive listening, communication clarity, relationship building, and credibility. Lack of eye contact puts individuals with ADHD at a social disadvantage in these environments.

Peers and colleagues can misperceive them as unintelligent, detached, sneaky, or unfriendly due to limited eye contact and disengagement.

Difficulty Making Friends

Friendships provide protection against bullying, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, the inability to make eye contact hinders the ability for children and adults with ADHD to initiate friendships.

Their avoidance is misinterpreted as disinterest or disregard, causing potential friends to disengage.

Tips for Improving Eye Contact with ADHD

While instinctive eye contact will likely remain difficult for those with ADHD, implementing strategies and practicing skills can improve abilities. With time and effort, eye contact can start to feel more natural.

Focus on the Forehead or Between the Eyes

Rather than forcing direct eye-to-eye contact, have the individual practice focusing their gaze on the other person’s forehead or the bridge of the nose between the eyes. This takes the intensity out of eye contact.

Take Cues From the Other Person

Watch the other person’s eyes and mimic where they look. Make eye contact when they do, and look away when they look away. This teaches the rhythms of eye contact throughmodeling.

Fake It By Looking at Eyebrows, Glasses, Etc.

Looking at eyebrows, glasses, or eyeshadow gives the appearance of eye contact without the intensity. Neurotypicals likely will not notice the difference. This is a good first step.

Teach the Purpose of Eye Contact

Explicitly teach that eye contact demonstrates engagement, care, interest, credibility, and comprehension. Understanding its communication function provides motivation.

Provide Coping Strategies for Emotion Regulation

Have self-regulation tools, like fidgets and breathing techniques, available to deal with anxiety and overstimulation from eye contact. Reducing inner turmoil allows for more focus outward.

Be Patient – This is a Learned Skill

Appropriate eye contact is a social competency that neurotypical children intrinsically develop over time. For those with ADHD, it must be consciously taught as a learned skill through repetition and practice.

Support Makes Progress Possible

While ADHD certainly makes eye contact more difficult in a variety of ways, focused strategies and compassionate support can help improve abilities. Understanding the reasons behind eye contact avoidance allows parents, teachers, employers, and friends to accommodate these challenges without judgment.

With work, those with ADHD can overcome pitfalls to make more consistent eye contact. In turn, social connections and relationships benefit and strengthen.

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