Please help me improve my child’s attention span!

Monique Simpson

By Monique Simpson | Speech Pathologist and Autism Specialist
As featured in Issue 01 of Autism World Magazine


A child with autism may have an unflinching ability to be able to maintain attention on a task that is motivating to them, like chatting about fire engines, repetitively turning taps on or off or perhaps lining up their favourite Thomas the Tank engines. However when asked to attend to an activity that doesn’t ‘tickle their fancy’, like labelling or matching some picture cards or building something with blocks, their attention may be very fleeting.

A study carried out by Garretson, Fein and Waterhouse in 1990 suggested that;

autistic children’s difficulties in sustaining attention on imposed tasks may be attributable partly to a developmental delay and partly to the motivational contingencies of a task rather than to a primary impairment in the ability to sustain attention.

I couldn’t agree more! Working with a child’s motivations and respecting and building upon their ideas are valuable tips to remember when improving attention span.

From my clinical experience here are three other critical points you should consider when working on increasing attention span:

1) Help the child be in a calm and organised state for attending
A child will have next to no chance of sustaining attention on a task if they are too over or under stimulated. For example a child who seeks an excessive amount of movement will be challenged if expected to sit down at the table to eat for an extended period of time. Giving the child opportunities before mealtime to maybe ride their bike or jump on the trampoline etc, will help organise their nervous system to enable them to respond appropriately to a more sedentary task. Understanding the unique Sensory Processing style of a child is a necessary part of intervention.

2) Consider how appropriate the environment is for attending
A child’s ability to attend for longer periods of time in a simple environment, like an uncluttered room, is often much more attainable than a noisy, overstimulating place like a classroom. Therefore our expectations for attention span need to be adjusted depending upon how dynamic a situation is. If too much stimulation is getting in the way of a child focussing then some consideration needs to be given to preparing the environment so that it is more suitable for effective learning. I recently carried out a therapy session with a family on their enclosed trampoline, rather than in a room of their house. My client loved this space and felt very safe and secure in it. It was a “just right” location for her to really be able to attend for longer periods of time without distraction.

3) Build the child’s desire to interact and learn from others
A child will stay attentive for longer if they are enjoying the value that another person is adding to the activity (e.g. reading, eating, playing, bathing, etc). A good quality interaction will hold a child’s attention for longer because they want to share attention, they are enjoying the emotional connection, they have a desire to interact and communicate their ideas. These types of interactions will eventually lead to the child wanting to learn more from others.

So in a nutshell if we want to build a child’s attention span it is important to consider the child’s motivations, respecting and building upon their ideas, achieving a calm and organised state, considering their environment and building the child’s desire to interact and learn from others… and of course try to be patient!

What’s Working for You?
I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences! Please leave a comment in the box provided below.


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  • Samantha

    I find that working with my own child and other children with Autism that a token economy is a great way of building and sustaining attention to tasks. Firstly, establish what the reward will be (stickers, tokens, time at a favourite activity etc.), create a laminated sheet and attach it to a lanyard that you can wear around your neck. Establish a time limit and expectations of a task. Check in regularly with the child and place dots or ticks on your chart when they are attending. You can negotiate depending upon the age of the child that a specific number of dots equates to your chosen economy or you can start by immediately rewarding for on-task behaviour and then stretch out the time limit and amount of reward as the child gets better at sustaining their attention.

  • Fredrick Sembatya

    Thanks Monique for sharing these tips. You are right about these challenges. In school environment for example especially those with inclusive settings, children tend to receive a lot of stimuli from the environment ranging from the paintings and drawings on the walls, to noises from the peers, staff etc. They tend to find it hard to focus on a particular stimulus so as to give a required response. Some end up running a way and go into hide outs. Some will throw tantrums especially those that are non verbal as a way of saying” this is too much for me. I can’t stand this environment any more”. But when we reduce on the environmental stimuli and distractions, a child finds it fun and spends more time in sessions. Furthermore, it is important to motivate the child during the sessions and also appreciate the little in put that the child has put in. Its also important to break down the tasks into manageable steps and have sessions in a fun like style to keep child attentive. Children love play. Also working according to the child’s interests keeps him/her longer in the sessions. Having physical exercises such as riding bicycle before a task that will require child to concentrate helps child stay calmer and more focused. In case of classroom, child should not be put near a walk way, or at the back of the classroom as these will tend to take some of the child’s attention. Explaining to the child what is expected of him/her during the task ie how much he/she is expected to do and when he/she is expected to be done. Timers can also be of help. Breaks in between tasks with free physical exercises can be of help. Rewards can help child concentrate more in the task.

  • Sally Wagter

    Hi Monique, we took our son, aged 8 out of school for 3 years because the environment was way too much for him and he was unable to access learning at all. At home he had 3 hours of 1-1 tuition every morning in an uncluttered and peaceful environment and play dates with just one or two friends nearly every afternoon. In that time he moved from ‘p’ levels to level 3 in English and maths (4 year old to 10 year old level academically) and his social skills developed to the level that he could join in summer schools in dance, drama and music – it was incredible – I believe loads to that was down to his learning environment and his 1-1 tuition – it’s amazing! Sally Wagter- England!

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