Getting a child to listen to instructions or pay attention while learning a new concept can be a difficult thing, and is especially hard for kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism may find it hard to focus on things that don’t naturally interest them and it can be a challenge to get them involved in activities that require shared attention, like reading a book together, taking turns in a game, or even following instructions in class. Many of them are able to focus on things that they like and usually have no problems focusing on it for hours on end. Some of their favourite activities may come in the form of letters and numbers, trains and vehicles, storybooks and movies scripts, or even learning a language. However, a common problem is getting a child with ASD to pause and attend to their environment.
Increasing your child’s attention through eye-contact
The first step to increasing attention is to increase your child’s eye contact. Eye contact is vital for developing a form of attention called joint attention which happens when both you and your child are paying attention to the same object. And learning how to share their attention with you - the development of joint attention - is crucial as it provides a critical foundation for all other aspects of development namely social, cognitive, and language development.
How do we help them develop eye contact?
Place yourself at your child’s eye level so that it is easier for your child to look at you.
When your child reaches for an object, hold the object in front of your face or beside your eyes to draw your child’s eyes towards your face.
When your child does actually look at you, praise your child for “Good looking!” while you hand over the object.
Increasing your child’s attention through play
Another way to increase attention in your child is to use play to build attentional skills. Play is the natural language that children engage in and it can be effectively tapped on to help build attention. As a reinforcing activity for the child, using play can help to reduce the stress on the child and increase their responsiveness and attention to you. In addition, research has found that talking while engaging your child in play can help to boost your child’s language skills even if it is not immediately noticeable.
How do we use play to develop attention?
Choose toys and activities that the child is interested in and play together to increase your child’s understanding of shared attention and shared enjoyment.
Imitate your child’s actions and behaviours to draw his/her attention towards you. This might capture your child’s interest and encourage him/her to look at you again.
Keep the play activity short with a goal so that you can praise your child when he/she completes the objective. For example if your child likes cars, try to show your child how to “drive the car” and praise if your child imitates you. If required, you may use your hand to gently guide your child to follow and then praise “Wow you’re driving the car so well!”
Keep talking while you’re playing to help your child stay focused on the activity that you both are doing together. The narration can also be useful in helping your child associate the demonstrated actions with the right words. For example while guiding your child in playing with the ball, you can say “Let’s throw the ball! Here take the ball, hold nicely, look at the basket, throw! WOW GOOD THROWING! WELL DONE!” Also, using a varied sing-song tone while talking can help to draw the child’s attention towards you and sustain his/her attention throughout the entire activity.
Increasing your child’s attention through sensory integration
Lastly, sensory integration can help to calm a child down and increase overall attention. Although children with ASD show persistent deficits in social and language development, they often show unusual responses to sensory stimuli as well. In the latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement) has been listed as one of the diagnostic criteria for ASD. A research study led by Haifa University’s Ayelet Ben-Sasson also found that 70 to 96 percent of children with ASD experience difficulties with sensory processing. As a result, the child may attend to stimuli apparently meaningless to us rather than to the task at hand. In such cases, introducing strategies to help provide sensory relief to the child’s overwhelmed sensory system will help to calm the child down and get your child to focus on you instead.
We hope these strategies and tips can help you with increasing the attention span for your child.
Written by Marjorie.
Autism Diagnosis Criteria: DSM-5. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2020, from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-diagnosis-criteria-dsm-5
Ben-Sasson, A., Hen, L., Fluss, R. et al. A Meta-Analysis of Sensory Modulation Symptoms in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 39, 1–11 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-008-0593-3
Joint Attention and Social Referencing. (2007, November). Retrieved March 9, 2020, from: http://www.infantva.org/documents/CoPA-Nov-JointAttentionSocialRefer.pdf
Paying attention: children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (2017, July 7). Retrieved March 9, 2020, from: https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/communicating-relationships/communicating/paying-attention-asd