In most cultures it is disrespectful not to look at the person who is speaking to you.
In other cultures it is the opposite. It is considered disrespectful to look at your elders when they are talking to you. The act of looking someone in the eyes can be seen as an act of challenging their authority.
Both O and L struggle to look people in the eye when they are speaking. Both will make fleeting glances at the person, including at us, and then look away.
From the outside, it appears that neither of them are listening. It appears that they are being rude.
And then occasionally O will do the complete opposite. O will make eye contact and then not break it. She will stare you down during a conversation to the point that it becomes very unnerving. O is beginning to understand that it is polite to look at the person who you are talking to. She just hasn't grasped the concept that staring makes some people feel very uncomfortable.
An individual with Autism doesn't need to look at you to pay attention. Looking at you can actually be very distracting and can make the individual feel very uncomfortable.
We've asked O why she will fiddle with a toy or whatever she is holding while we talk with her. We used to think that she wasn't paying any attention what so ever. Turns out she was paying attention and quite often can repeat verbatim what we said to her. O explained that keeping her hands busy while talking means that her mind can be still, she can take in everything and process what we are saying.
It may look like she is gazing off into the distance and is not here with us, but she is.
Individuals with Autism can find it very difficult to read facial expressions and other non-verbal communication cues. Looking at someones face when they are talking can actually be quite distracting as the individual tries to process what they are seeing and hearing. If you think about it, it is a lot of information to process - facial expressions, hand gestures, the language used, the tone of voice and so on. Then throw in that the individual is also trying to process what you are saying and trying to form a reply in their mind, you may start to feel a little tongue tied.
So the next time that you are talking to with O or L and they don't look at you, please don't assume that they are being disrespectful and not listening.
They more than likely are paying you their full attention, just in their own way, as well as processing what you are saying.
They may seem disinterested and aloof, but I can guarantee that they are there with you, working things out in their own way. There is so much happening behind their eyes. They're really not as far away as they seem.