By Raising Children Network
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Mum helping child with ASD to do homework (c) Gunkel
Most children find that paying attention can be hard work at times. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can be a big challenge. Play is an ideal way to help your child develop this skill.

About attention

When we pay attention, we focus on one thing and put other things out of our minds. For example, we listen to what someone’s saying, while ignoring other conversations and background noise in the room.

Paying attention uses particular networks in the brain. It’s a skill that develops over time. To pay attention effectively, we need to be alert, so that we can sort out and put together the right information from our surroundings.

Paying attention is a key skill for learning. For example, children need to pay attention to a teacher’s instructions to be sure they’re doing things the right way. Children also need to be able to keep their attention on tasks to be able to learn.

Attention difficulties and autism spectrum disorder

All children can find it hard to filter out distractions sometimes, which makes it hard for them to pay attention. They can easily get distracted by background noise, bright lights, hunger – or the very interesting ideas buzzing around in their heads! It’s also easy for kids to get bored or lose interest.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it really hard to focus on things that don’t interest them – for example, activities that involve shared attention, such as reading a book with a carer, doing a puzzle, or even walking safely across the road. But they can keep their attention on things they like. For example, a child who’s keen on trains might be able to focus on this for a long time while she’s setting up her train tracks.

It might also be difficult to get your child’s attention, especially if he has trouble making eye contact.

Children with ASD quite often also have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When children have trouble paying attention, it can lead to problem behaviour. A child who isn’t doing what she’s told might look like she’s deliberately behaving badly. For example, if a child rarely follows instructions, her parents could get frustrated and angry because it seems like she never listens. This could upset the child and lead to difficult behaviour such as tantrums.

Developing attention in children with autism spectrum disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can learn to pay attention, and they can get better at it with practice.

Making eye contact is the first step in teaching your child how to pay attention to people and not just to his favourite toys or activities. You could try calling his name, placing an object within his line of sight, and then moving the object towards your eyes. Eventually he’ll start to look towards your face when you call his name. This might take a long time and you might find you need to break it small steps.

Using play to develop attention skills

Play is one of the best ways to help children with ASD learn and develop the skill of paying attention.

You can get started by choosing activities that your child finds naturally interesting. For example, if your child loves playing ball games, you could use this as an activity that she does with other people. Rolling or throwing a ball together promotes attention and shared attention, social referencing and shared enjoyment. It’s a good idea to get rid of all distractions before you start on the activity – for example, turn off the radio, television, computer and phone.

Also, short activities with definite ends or goals are good – for example, making a necklace using two beads and a piece of string. You can put on the first bead together, and then let your child put on the second one. The task gets finished quickly, and you can reward your child with lots of praise. You can gradually increase your child’s attention by building up from a two-bead necklace to one with more beads.

Some parents find it increases their child’s attention span if they get their child to look at them before they give instructions. Here are some tips for giving instructions:

  • Try to limit the number of words you use – for example, you might say, ‘Match the shape’ instead of ‘I want you to put the shapes together so that they match’.
  • Repeating key words can help your child focus – for example, ‘Ball’, ‘Roll the ball’, ‘Catch the ball’, ‘Kick the ball’.
  • When your child makes a sound or says a word, repeat it back to her. This can develop ongoing interactions and develop your child’s increased attention to you.   
  • Comment as you and your child are working on the task. When you talk about what your child is doing, ask questions and give suggestions. This can encourage him to keep focused for longer.

To help your child keep her attention on the task, you can use modelling and hand-over-hand help to do the activity together. For example, you could put a bead on the string and then take your child’s hand and help her put a bead on. Praise your child when she finishes the activity.

If you need to make a transition from one activity to another, warn your child that there’s a change coming up. Children need time to shift their focus of attention. A picture-based timetable of activities might be helpful.

It’s a good idea to avoid open-ended activities such as playing with playdough. Because there’s no ‘end’ to the activity, your child might find it hard to know when to finish. A visual timer that shows your child how long he has to keep focusing can help.

If your child understands ‘if, then’ statements, you can use these to show her that there’s an end to the activity and she can move on to something new. Use clear, simple language. For example, you might say ’First shapes, then bubbles’. 

If your child doesn’t yet understand ‘if, then’ statements, you could start with two favourite activities so that he doesn’t get upset when you change activities – for example, ‘first bubbles, then train’. This will help your child to focus more on what you’re saying, rather than being upset. Start with an easy activity that your child can complete quickly. Once he’s completed it, give him lots of praise – for example, ‘All done, good boy! Now train’.

You can help your child stay on task by looking out for everyday moments when your child can practise attention skills. Try to include incidental teaching as part of your day.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was developed with help from Louise Critchley, Faculty of Education, Monash University and Avril Brereton, Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology, Monash University.