How to Manage Attention Seeking Behaviour in Children with Autism?
Why do children with autism engage in behaviours to gain attention? Children who are not as verbal tend to struggle more with communicating their needs and wants if not taught properly (Steinberg Behavior Solutions, n.d.). Verbal children on the other hand may also struggle with communicating their needs and wants, however, are able to vocalise better, hence we see more of these negative behaviours occurring amongst the non-verbal children. When children with Autism struggle to communicate their needs, behaviours arise, and it can be either positive or negative behaviour. In this case, the “need” we are talking about is the “need for attention”.
The reason why negative behaviours may recur more frequently as compared to positive behaviours is because a negative behaviour awards them with a more instantaneous reaction (DiPierro and Brown, 2016). This instantaneous reaction is a form of attention. Examples of this attention may include, but is not limited to eye contact, scolding, stopping them physically, showing emotions, etc (Kohek, 2019).
Now that we understand a little on how negative attention-seeking behaviours may be reinforced unknowingly, we dive into some examples of these behaviours. Attention seeking behaviour may include screaming, asking for things way too often (if they are verbal), throwing items, self-injurious behaviours like head-banging, scratching, crying, hitting, punching themselves, etc., and violence against others (Ibarra, 2019). These behaviours may be hard to manage as it compromises the safety of the child.
You might be wondering, if attention is given to them through scolding, eye contact and stopping them physically, then what can you do about it at the moment? The answer is to ignore it! With reference to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, we can better understand why it is important to ignore these negative attention-seeking behaviours rather than to attend to it.
With better understanding, we now talk about how to manage the behaviours, when to attend to it and when to ignore. The moment you ignore your child’s negative behaviour, they would start to realise they cannot get a reaction out of you, this is when you must step in immediately after they stop any negative behaviours, to reinforce them and praise them for the positive one (Morin, 2019). With repetitive cycles of this, the child will understand that positive behaviours will incur a positive reinforcement in the form of attention.
For extreme behaviours that you may struggle with ignoring, contrive them in a safe environment, preferably in a room with many cushions and pillows, a soft play mat and minimal furniture lying around. Observe a pattern in which this behaviour tends to occur and plan ahead by bringing the behaviour into a safe environment to be handled.
Another case of attention seeking behaviour can be one that happens in a social setting. In this case, it requires urgent attention as other people may not understand to ignore the behaviour as you do, and it can cause unintentional positive reinforcement of attending to your child. The second method to deal with this behaviour is to redirect. Redirection is to distract your child with a different task, and it could be something you are doing. For example, when your child is kicking the table at a dinner setting, you can say “Pass the food down the table, please”. This method works as it also does not attend to your child’s behaviour. It is important to give the task without mentioning the behaviour that you are fully aware of.
Attention-seeking behaviours will take a great deal of patience to continuously ignore and attend accordingly. At times, even after a negative behaviour is eliminated, the child may find a new one in replacement. However with consistent repetition, behaviours can be learnt and changed into ones that are socially appropriate.
Written by: Joleen
Amy M. (2019). Verywellfamily. Reduce Attention-seeking Behaviours by Ignoring. Retrieved from https://www.verywellfamily.com/selective-ignoring-to-reduce-attention-seeking-1094760
instructionaldesign.org. (n.d.). Operant Conditioning (B. F. Skinner). Retrieved from https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/operant-conditioning/
Jessica K. (2019). Organisation for Autism Research. How to respond to attention seeking behaviour. Retrieved from https://researchautism.org/how-to-respond-to-attention-seeking-behaviour/
Moneika D. & Shaquanna B. (2016). University of Kansas, Clinical Child Psychology Program. Managing Negative Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Retrieved from
Michelle I. (2019). World Stem Cells Clinic. Eliminating Attention Seeking Behaviors in Autism. Retrieved from
Steinberg Behavior Solutions. (n.d.) Mitigating Attention Seeking Behaviors in Nonverbal Children. Retrieved from https://www.sbsaba.com/mitigating-attention-seeking-behaviors-in-nonverbal-children/