Attention Problems in Children with ASD Level 1

“My son with high functioning autism has always struggled with paying attention to things (except those things that he really enjoys, of course). And now I’m getting reports from his teacher that his lack of attention span is severely affecting his grades for this upcoming report card. According to the teacher, my son is also having ‘increased behavioral problems’. Any suggestions on what I can do here at home to help him do better in school?”

A common misconception about ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autistic (HFA), kids with attention difficulties is that they don’t pay attention at all. This is not necessarily the case. In actuality, these young people often pay attention to everything. Their problem is deciding what to focus on – and maintaining that focus.

Kids with HFA usually have deficits in “executive function” (i.e., the ability to think and plan ahead, control impulses, organize, and complete tasks. As a result, parents need to take over as the executive, providing extra guidance while their youngster gradually acquires executive skills of his or her own.

Although many of the traits of HFA are nothing short of frustrating at times, it’s important to remember that the youngster on the autism spectrum who is inattentive or ignoring is not acting willfully. Having an autism spectrum disorder is just as frustrating for your youngster.

Here are some essential tips for helping children with HFA who have attention difficulties:

1. The youngster on the autism spectrum often becomes more distracted and agitated if there are many after-school activities. Thus, parents should make adjustments to their youngster’s after-school commitments based on her abilities and the demands of particular activities.

2. Be on the lookout for good behavior – and praise it. Praise is especially important for kids with HFA, because they typically get so little of it. During a typical school day, many of these “special needs” kids receive constant correction, remediation, and complaints about their behavior, but little positive reinforcement.

3. Model “paying attention.” For example, when your youngster interrupts your work, it’s natural to shift your focus to him. But, this rewards inattentive behavior. Therefore, calmly tell your child that you are busy right now and trying to concentrate on what you’re doing. Also, “provide acknowledgment” when you catch your child paying attention. For example, when he is quietly concentrating on a task that he doesn’t like or finds difficult (such as homework), let him know that you recognize and appreciate his efforts.

4. Consider placing clocks throughout the house, especially in your youngster’s bedroom. Allow enough time for what your youngster needs to do (e.g., homework, getting ready in the morning, etc.). Also, use a timer for homework or transitional times (e.g., between finishing up play, getting ready for bed, etc.).

5. Create a “buffer time” (i.e., a time for quieter activities like coloring or reading) to slow down the activity level for an hour or so before bedtime. Also, consider using lavender or other aromas in your youngster's room (these have a calming effect).

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism 

6. Food can - and does - affect your youngster's mental state, which in turn affects behavior. Monitoring and modifying what, when, and how much your youngster eats can help decrease the symptoms of HFA. Prevent unhealthy eating habits by scheduling regular nutritious snacks and meals no more than 3 hours apart.

7. Kids with HFA are more likely to be successful in completing tasks when the tasks occur in predictable places and in predictable patterns. The parent’s job is to create and sustain structure in the home so that the youngster knows what to expect.

8. Educate your child on what it means to procrastinate, how everybody does it, and what a strong force it exerts on people. Teach her the difference between taking a much-needed break versus avoiding an activity. Also, teach your child how to spot her own reasons for procrastinating (e.g., unacknowledged fear of failure, believing the task is too difficult, etc.).

9. Kids with HFA tend to spend a lot of their time playing computer games (a sedentary activity). Therefore, it’s important for parents to provide opportunities for their child to “get physical.” The benefits of exercise are endless (e.g., improves concentration, decreases depression and anxiety, promotes brain growth, leads to better sleep - which in turn can reduce some of the traits of AS and HFA).

10. Make sure your “consequence system” is an effective one. For example, (a) always follow through with a consequence; (b) consequences should be spelled out in advance and occur immediately after your youngster has misbehaved; (c) remove your youngster from situations and environments that trigger inappropriate behavior; (d) try time-outs and the removal of privileges as consequences for misbehavior; and (e) when your youngster misbehaves, ask what he could have done instead, then have him demonstrate it.

11. Make sure your “reward system” is an effective one. For example, (a) reward your youngster for small achievements that you might take for granted in your other children; (b) always follow through with a reward; (c) change rewards frequently (kids on the spectrum get bored if the reward is always the same); (d) immediate rewards work better than the promise of a future reward, but small rewards leading to a big one can also work; (e) make a chart with points or stars awarded for good behavior so your youngster has a visual reminder of her successes; and (f) reward your youngster with privileges, praise, or activities, rather than with toys or food.

12. Research shows that kids with HFA benefit from spending time in nature. They often experience a greater reduction of symptoms of their disorder (including attentional difficulties) when they play in a park full of grass and trees instead of on a concrete playground.

13. Set a time and a place for everything to help your youngster understand and meet expectations. Establish simple and predictable rituals for meals, homework, play, and bed.

14. The child with HFA often has significant social skills deficits. He may talk too much, become easily distracted, struggle with reading social cues, interrupt frequently, or come off as aggressive. His relative emotional immaturity can make him stand out among his peer group and make him a target for rejection, teasing, and bullying. Thus, parents will do well to teach a few social skills. For example, (a) be careful to select playmates for your youngster with similar language and physical skills; (b) help him learn to read people’s faces and body language and to interact more smoothly in groups; (c) help him to become a better listener; (d) invite only one or two friends at a time at first, watch them closely while they play, and have a zero-tolerance policy for hitting/pushing/yelling; (e) make time and space for your youngster to play, and reward good play behaviors often; (f) role-play various social scenarios with your youngster, and trade roles often and try to make it fun; and (g) speak gently but honestly with your youngster about his challenges and how to make changes.

15. The youngster with HFA needs consistent rules that he can understand and follow. Make the rules of behavior simple and clear. Write them down, and hang them up in a place where he can easily read them. Pictorial depictions of the rules can be helpful as well.

16. Lastly, investigate to see whether or not your child may have ADD. If you answer “yes” to most of the traits below, then strongly consider seeking a diagnosis from a professional:

(Yes or No)
  • My youngster fails to think through what he is about to do or say (i.e., leaps without looking).
  • He has difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in routines.
  • He has difficulty paying attention to the things that others (e.g., teachers) want him to do (e.g. instructions).
  • She has difficulty waiting for rewards and delaying gratification. 
  • She has difficulty waiting in line, sharing, and cooperating.
  • He is inconsistent in his work and behavior (i.e., he’s fine one day, but not the next).
  • My youngster overreacts to minor disturbances.
  • He is often restless, fidgets, and squirms.
  • He needs a lot of supervision to complete tasks (e.g., school work, chores, etc.), which require sustained attention.
  • Her attention span is getting worse relative to other kids the same age.
  • Her schoolwork, belongings, time-management, and personal functioning seem very disorganized.
  • It is hard for my youngster to follow routines (e.g., getting ready for school, getting ready for bed, etc.).
  • My youngster’s ability to control impulses is not improving with age.
  • My youngster has difficulty waiting for a turn, (e.g., interrupts others, blurts out answers before a question is completed, etc.).
  • He notes details that interest him, but misses the main idea.
  • He often gets into potentially dangerous situations.
  • Her school grades do not reflect her true ability (i.e., she underachieves).
  • He seems always on the go as if driven by an engine.
  • He shows rapid mood swings.
  • My youngster honestly “forgets” to bring her assignments home. 
  • My youngster’s activity level is inappropriate for the situation (e.g., has difficulty sitting still in class, during meals, church, etc.).
  • She daydreams, drifts into her own little world, and is often oblivious to what’s going on.
  • She has difficulty paying attention to things I want her to do.
  • She is easily bored.
  • He does pay attention to things he wants to do.
  • He doesn’t pay attention to important details and often makes careless mistakes in schoolwork. (e.g., + and – signs in math).
  • She is very interested in an activity I have difficulty dragging her away.
  • When he is working on his own hobbies or creating his own projects, he is extremely focused and organized.

Moms and dads are usually worried when they receive a note from school saying that their youngster doesn’t listen to the teacher and causes problems in class. Even though the youngster with HFA often wants to be a good student, attention difficulties and impulsive behavior frequently interferes. Parents know that their youngster is struggling, but may not know exactly what’s wrong. By utilizing the steps listed above, you should be able to help your child to be more focused and composed while in the classroom – and at home.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said… Breaks (movement and mini's / possibly shortening the class or the day). Lessen some of the demands. Shorten the day or add some study halls for him. I would ask him. Usually they want choices. They could do work at home and reading at school. They could do half the work assignment or none at all if they are getting the "knowledge". Less busy work is always good for them. Projects tend to help them.
•    Anonymous said… Call an IEP meeting and if he doesn't have an IEP, get him one. The classroom setting he is currently in is not accomodating his needs.
•    Anonymous said… Great suggestions above. We used some of them, but once he went to HS, things kind of fell apart. I decdied to homeschool him. It allows me to work with him one-on-one, take frequent breaks, and assign smaller assignments (vs HS). We go thru a homeschooling program that offers a special services program which helps as well. Good luck!
•    Anonymous said… I have high-functioning autism, myself. When I was your son's age, what whipped me into shape was positive reinforcement. If I did what I was supposed to, I was rewarded with the things I enjoyed doing. For example, I earned the privilege to go to a Rolling Stones concert with my parents for getting my grades up. The IEP thing is also a good idea. Good luck with helping your son! Hope it helps hearing feedback from someone that was in his place at one time.
•    Anonymous said… My son was the same way. His grades were suffering and he would have a meltdown daily which sometimes ended with him hiding from the teachers & aides under the desks and tables at school. I would end the day with having to go to the classroom sit on the floor and wait for him to calm down while we’re both on the floor with him in my arms. This was not only hard on him, but hard on his twin brother who would get teased constantly about his brother’s behavior. We opted for the restricted special education class this year. Less than half the kids of an integrated classroom. Less stress on him, no longer needs a 1 on 1 aide, his grades are coming up. He absolutely loves his electronics. So His teacher has been rewarding his good behavior with time on an iPad at the end of each day! He does get homework, but within his ability which now he does on his own! He’s doing fantastic this year! Point may only take some modifications in his daily work to help. If the other students have, let’s say 20 math problems, giving your Aspie child 8-10 may help. I found my son would finish at the same time as the other children which gave him confidence and he was less frustrated. His behavior changed because of this and his rewards.
•    Anonymous said… We've done IEP, therapy and meds. My 3 boys are on varying degrees of the spectrum and ADHD. They have come a long way with these strategies.

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