As a society, we rely on verbal and nonverbal communication to: listen, respond, act, or understand another. Even though we don't always say what we mean, our verbal communication is decently direct. If we are hiding something, this is generally shown through non-verbal communication. Our body postures, hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact/lack there of, are often tail-tell signs about someone or how they feel. Some say these gestures regulate social interactions. People with Autism usually have an impairment in all areas(aka symptoms), but the most acknowledged one is lack-of-eye-contact.
Lacking eye-to eye contact can mean, but not limited to: deception, hesitation, embarrassment, insecure, lack of respect or rejection from the one averting eye contact. It's also averted within confession booths or psychiatrists's offices. Ever notice how the couch is placed to reduce eye contact between patient and therapist? How about a confessional booth? You cannot truly look into the priest's eyes. Why is this? Usually, when a person talks about a shameful/embarrassing moment or they are reflecting, it's easier not to have "all eyes on you" feeling. I suppose this is why there is a negative connotation when averting eye contact. Maybe this is why many people are beginning to question "why" those with Autism have this "symptom".
Let us now look at the reasons why neurotypicals have eye contact. It's used for feedback or to hand over the conversation. An approval of sorts. Some are thought to be more honest or believable. Holding eye contact is used to persuade and encourage. It's also believed that the longer one holds a gaze, the personal relationship is more important than what's actually being said. Ironically, our special children don't hold much emphasis on titles or relationships. This doesn't mean they can't have empathy, but words have limited meaning to them earlier on. Non verbal cues mean that much more. The problem is, they don't place the same connotation behind the non verbal cues as we do.
I cannot specify for each child out there as to why they don't look someone in the eye. I can however, talk about my son. Because I understood, very early on, non-verbal cues meant more than words to Chris, I began watching his. Whenever he was angry or impatient, he would hand flap. What we call the "monkey". His arms would go up to his ears, in fists, and begin a side-to-side motion. In his earlier years, he made a monkey-like sound, "ooh-ooh, ehh-ehh." His eyebrows would frown and his face would freeze. Like a robot having a malfunction. This led me to understand that when I frowned my brow, he would pick up on the non-verbal cue, which meant I was not happy. Just because he couldn't see himself in the mirror, didn't mean he couldn't understand the face he was making. Him frowning showed a specific feeling, so if I did, that meant the same within his world.
There were other moments like this in which I noticed. If he felt hurt or was feeling some type of pain, he would avert eye contact. It was a fluke how I noticed this. We were watching, Hatchi, a movie about a dog. He wasn't even 2 and half years old. He didn't understand the word, "death", let alone any aspect of it previous to this movie. When the dog died, the movie showed clips of "Hatchi's" past life with his owner until that moment in the present. Chris, walked away and didn't have any irregular motion. When I walked up to him, bent down, and tried looking at him, he pulled away. He actually tried hitting me. It was at that moment, I realized, "holy crap, he understood the dog died." How was it that a non-verbal Autistic child, understood something so powerful from pictures on a screen? The answer hit me like a ton of bricks. If a child cannot speak, but only think. A child can only hold images instead of words to meaning. He can understand better, deeper, and faster than most adults can.
Chris was not distracted from outside noise. Nor was he holding a word to a meaning. This meant he could see the picture more clearly than someone who takes those things into consideration, willingly or not. From that moment on, I began to teach him sign language and watch my facial expressions, my posture, walk, hand gestures, and eye contact.
Another thing I realized, is the more I entered his world and allowed him to show/teach me, the more he maintained eye contact with me. Once he made eye contact, I would break away before him so he felt like he was in control. Kind of like bowing your head to a dog that wants to chew your face off. Or a person who wants to fight you. Most of the time, if you walk away, avert eye contact, or lower your eyes, the other person/animal doesn't feel conflict.
Why our Autistic children feel it's a negative thing to avert eye contact is not the issue. The real issue is when they do it. If you figure out when they do it, you can then flip the script and teach them the "social norm" of eye contact. Actually, the "monkey" I spoke of earlier in the post, Chris has since changed the reasoning. Now, he does it when there is too much "fun" or "exciting" stimuli. Like crashing a car on Roblox or we are going to a "party" (aka, friend's house, b-day party, vacation, any fun spot for children).
Now, that he is verbal, we have discussed the noise that comes with it. He has actually found a way to limit/eliminate the noise. The arm gestures and face freeze is still there, but I don't think he has much control over that. His brain has too much power over his body. He has made the verbal obey his command. Chris, also, looks strangers in the eyes. Due to us hugging to show we enjoy one another's company or like/love another, he now hugs strangers, too. I guess we can't win all the non-verbal battles!
Paulo Coelho once said, "No one can lie. No one can hide anything, when he looks directly into someone's eyes." Maybe our special children can see those things we hide. Maybe, they refuse to see it. My personal favorite, which has enhanced my life and his is, "Let my soul smile through my heart and my heart smile through my eyes, that I may scatter rich smiles in sad hearts."