Paying attention is a key skill for learning
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
A normal attention span is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. Therefore, a 2-year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular task for at least 6 minutes, and a child entering kindergarten should be able to concentrate for at least 15 minutes
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.
Attention difficulties and autism spectrum disorder
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it really hard to focus on things that don’t interest them. . But they can keep their attention on things they like. 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 his favorite toys or activities.
To get your child to make eye contact, you could try calling her name, placing an object within her line of sight, and then moving the object towards your eyes. Eventually your child will start to look towards your face when you call her name. This might take a long time and you might find you need to break the process down into small steps.
What type of therapy is recommended for attention difficulties?
If your child has difficulties with attention, it is recommended they consult an Occupational Therapist.
Children born with the ability to develop executive functioning skills, but some children may need more help than others to acquire them. Children with ASD or a sensory processing disorder (SPD) may have a more difficult time gaining executive functioning skills. They may have difficulties getting started on tasks, keeping their attention on a task, following multi-step directions, organizing materials, and managing their time. Children with executive functioning impairments may over or under react to problems, they may have difficulty making and keeping friends, and have low self-esteem.
Occupational therapists work with children to identify how these challenges are impacting their daily occupations. These occupations include performing self-care, being a good student, interacting socially with family and friends, and being successful at play and leisure activities.
Occupational therapists have tools to help children with executive function and self-regulation issues. An occupational therapist may use specific programs and strategies when working directly with a child or recommend changes to the child’s home and school environments and routines.
There are a few programs that occupational therapists use to teach children about self-regulation. These include The Alert Program and The Zones of Regulation. These programs teach children to identify their own state of, understand when different alertness levels are appropriate, and use sensory strategies to adjust their alertness when necessary.
Occupational therapists may develop a personalized Sensory Diet for children to help them maintain an optimal alertness level for school and/or home. Some children may need calming strategies to improve attention at school or to prepare for bedtime. Other children may need are using strategies to combat lethargy. Different sensory integration techniques and strategies can be taught to children, families, and teachers. Examples of these include the Mindfulness Training, and yoga practice. Diet may also play a part in self-regulation.
Occupational therapists can also target executive functioning skills through practicing discrete skills (i.e. activities that have a clear start/stop point such as puzzles, mazes, and dot-to-dots), using picture schedules so that the child can understand the sequence of an activity or his/her day, moving through obstacle courses, using timers to teach time management and help with transitions, and playing memory games.
Some of the environmental modifications that occupational therapists may recommend include:
- Set up a distraction-free environment. Use privacy dividers, noise cancelling headphones, or ear plugs, or seat the child facing away from other children or a window/door.
- Establish a homework routine to avoid procrastination and distractions.
- Use aids like calendars, daily planners/organizers, computers, or watches with alarms.
- Use visuals; Prepare visual schedules and review them several times a day.
- Create checklists and “to do” lists, estimating how long tasks will take. Use checklists for getting through and activity or assignment.
Tips for Increasing a Attention Span
- Give kids a reason to pay attention – be creative.
- Make it physical.
- Practice attentive behavior.
- Adjust the task.
- Eliminate distractions.
- Turn it into a game.
- Break the tasks down.
Dr. Bhavya Singh