Much like reading and writing, attention is a learned skill — and it’s something that children develop at different rates. However, for kids on the autism spectrum, there can oftentimes be barriers to break through in order to achieve that goal.
“More often than not, difficulties with sustaining attention are actually more likely due to motivation of a particular task rather than an impairment in one’s ability to attend,” says Reena Naami, the owner of the Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills.
Finding that motivating factor isn’t always easy, though.
“When it comes to individuals with autism, sometimes it’s a little harder to find something that is consistently motivating,” she says. That’s because kids with autism have patterns within their behavior that can make it difficult to find a broader sense of things they are motivated by. Still, it’s important to understand what motivates your child in order to begin working on attention — and avoid any social or academic setbacks.
“A child who struggles with being able to pay attention to things and sustain attention, a lot of it can affect their social abilities, as well, and their ability to have appropriate peer interactions and peer relationships,” Naami says.
So, what can parents do? Try these five tips.
1. Praise and reinforcement. “Always look for opportunities to reinforce the behavior when it does occur on its own,” she says.
2. Make adjustments to the task itself. “Breaking down the task at hand can really help keep a child focused,” Naami says.
Focusing on parts of a task that can be completed independent of each other can be really helpful to a child — as opposed to hearing about all the tasks involved at once. Let your child focus on one component first, and, once that component is finished, give him the next component to work on.
Consider intervals to complete work, she adds. Have your child do a task for five minutes, followed by a five-minute break. Doing so gives children an end goal and lets them know how long they must work.
3. Shaping. Shaping is systemically training a particular behavior by reinforcing “successive approximations” to the final goal – in this case, allowing you to gradually increase the time a child spends on a task. To get started, Naami suggests recording an average of how long your child takes to attend to a task. Using that average gives you a good baseline of a goal. So if a child can spend about three minutes on a task, a goal of three minutes is an ideal start because it’s achievable.
As your child consistently beats the goal you’ve set, increase the amount of time he attends to a task by small increments.
“You do want to take care not to increase the requirement too quickly,” she says, because if a requirement is increased too quickly, you may see a decrease in the desired behavior.
4. Eliminate distractions. Minimize access to toys, the television or any other screen that could be a distraction. If perhaps there are siblings at home who might be playing or causing commotion, it’s best if they are not nearby as you’re working with your child on attention.
5. Offer choice. To help increase motivation, let your child decide which tasks he wants to do or what order he does his tasks in.
Naami stresses it’s important for parents to consult their child’s provider for additional insight and assistance when it comes to working on attention.
Content brought to you by the Spark Center for Autism. For more information, visit sparkcenterforautism.com.