When we pay attention, we focus on one thing and put other things out of our minds. For example, we listen to what someone is 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 well, we need to be alert. This allows us to sort out the right information from our surroundings and put this information together.
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 children 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, like 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 for a long time while setting up some train tracks.
Also, it can sometimes be hard to attract the attention of children with ASD, especially if they have trouble making eye contact.
Children with ASD quite often also have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Eye contact: the first step towards paying attention
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 favourite toys or activities.
To get your child to make eye contact, you could try calling your child’s name, placing an object within your child’s line of sight, and then moving the object towards your eyes. Eventually your child will start to look towards your face when you call their name. This might take a long time and you might find you need to break the process down into small steps.
Using play to build attention skills
Play is one of the best ways to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn and develop the skill of paying attention. Here are some play-based strategies that can help you build your child’s attention skills.
You can get started by choosing activities that your child finds naturally interesting. For example, if your child loves playing ball games, this could be an activity that your child does with other people. Rolling or throwing a ball together promotes attention and shared attention, social referencing and shared enjoyment.
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.
Another activity could be doing a puzzle. Start with a puzzle that has been completed except for one piece and get your child to put in the last piece. You can build your child’s attention by gradually increasing the number of pieces your child puts in the puzzle until your child can pay attention for the whole puzzle.
It’s a good idea to avoid open-ended activities like 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 they have to keep focusing can help.
When you’re playing with your child with ASD, you’ll need to give instructions about what to do next. Here are some tips for giving effective instructions:
- Limit the number of words you use – for example, you might say, ‘Match the shapes’ instead of ‘I want you to put the shapes together so that they match’.
- Repeat key words to help your child focus – for example, ‘Ball’, ‘Roll the ball’, ‘Catch the ball’, ‘Kick the ball’.
Talking as you play
Talking and interacting with your child during play can help you attract and keep your child’s attention. Try these tips:
- Copy your child’s actions and behaviour. This can attract your child’s attention to you. Your child might be interested and look to see whether you copy them again next time.
- When your child makes a sound or says a word, repeat it back to your child. This can develop ongoing interactions and develop your child’s increased attention to you.
- Talk as you and your child are playing. When you talk about what your child is doing, ask questions and give suggestions. This can encourage your child to keep focused for longer.
To help your child keep 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 them put a bead on. Praise your child when they finish 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 attention. A picture-based timetable of activities might be helpful.
If your child understands ‘if, then’ statements, you can use these to show that there’s an end to the activity and your child 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 your child 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. It’s best if the first activity is quick and easy to complete quickly. Once your child has completed it, give them lots of praise – for example, ‘All finished, well done! Now train’.