By Monique Simpson – Founder and Speech Pathologist
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!
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