[I found this draft that I wrote several years ago and never completed. I think it is worthwhile finishing and posting. The text I am adding will be in italics.]
Because of my background in special education, I am occasionally asked specific questions about children with disabilities. One of the challenges facing Christian parents with a special needs child is addressing weaknesses directly related to a child’s disability.
I say all of this because I’ve noticed for some time that Bethel has a great deal of difficulty looking at me, particularly for extended periods of time (she’ll look at me briefly, but will not hold a steady gaze) or when I ask her to, in order to ensure she understood something I have said. I didn’t remember David having difficulty with this concept, but I also realize that I wasn’t as distracted with David as a toddler as I was with Bethel as a toddler (with a brother sixteen months older, and a sister twenty two months younger). I’ve been assuming the difficulty was a result of my lack of consistency, and not an inherent difficulty in maintaining social eye contact.
Watching the ease with which my youngest daughter responds when I talk to her (I rarely have to ask her to look at me when I talk, and when I do ask her to look at me, her response is immediate) has given me insight into my oldest daughter. The difference is not my imagination. [This observation makes me laugh five years later. My youngest is still extremely sensitive to connectivity. She wants to be connected with people, loves social interaction, and still has no problem with eye contact.]
This line of thinking leads me to conclude that it is, in fact, difficult for Bethel to look at me when I ask her to. How much do I challenge the difficulty?
If she responds appropriately to my words, should I require her to look at me? How should I respond to this knowledge?
Tentatively, I believe my first response should take place within myself. I need to have patience with her, realizing that not looking up when asked may not be a rebellious action. I also believe in the importance of continuing to help her understand the importance of making eye contact. It’s worth working on, as long as I recognize that she may not get it as quickly as I would like. Since she still doesn’t always respond right away (either a verbal response, or simply obeying), it might be a good idea to consider some brainstorming into how I’m giving commands (I’ve already noticed some things) or how I’m requiring her to respond. As long as she obeys, it really doesn’t matter that she look at me or give a verbal response. Those requirements are simply tools for her to help her obey.
I still say, “Look at me,” although I have long since backed off of requiring eye contact. She doesn’t seem to have the same aversion to eye contact, although I’ve discovered that Bethel responds well to low-intensity communication. (Her difficulty as a three year old was intensity, not eye contact, as I had supposed.) I have more success holding her close to me and talking without eye contact even now. She likes to write, and I discovered that she will write questions for me in her journal, and wants me to answer them in writing. She likes to have conversations while we work together in the kitchen.
I still think forcing change gently is a good approach. But in this situation, there was much more learning to understand my child than simply teaching her to change.