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Poor Concentration in Students on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Teachers

“Any tips for assisting my autistic student (high-functioning) with staying more focused and on task?”

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s are often off task, distracted by internal stimuli, can be very disorganized, and have difficulty sustaining focus on classroom activities. Often it is not that the attention is poor, rather that the focus is "odd."

In other words, the child can’t figure out what is relevant, so attention is often focused on irrelevant stimuli. In addition, these “special needs” students tend to withdrawal into complex inner worlds in a manner much more intense than is typical of daydreaming.

Here are a few suggestions to help with poor concentration in students on the autism spectrum:

1.  Work out a nonverbal signal with your HFA student (e.g., a gentle pat on the shoulder) for times when he or she is not attending.

2.  Encourage the student to leave his or her inner thoughts and fantasies behind and refocus on the real world. This will be easier said than done though, because the comfort of that inner world is most likely much more attractive than anything in real life.

Even free play needs to be structured, because kids on the spectrum can become so immersed in solitary, ritualized fantasy-play that they lose touch with reality. For example, encouraging your student to play a board game with one or two others under close supervision not only structures play, but offers an opportunity to practice social skills.

3.  When possible, seat your HFA student at the front of the class and direct frequent questions to him or her. This may also help the child to attend to the lessons.

4. Children with HFA and Asperger’s often benefit from timed work-sessions. This keeps their interest levels up and helps them stay organized. Factors that cause the “special needs” student to lose interest during the allocated time-frame include:
  • Over-reliance on seat-work
  • Uninteresting and overly demanding lessons and other non-engaging activities
  • Uneven transitions between activities
  • Inefficient classroom-management that disrupts the learning flow (e.g., disorderly material distribution or disorganized assignment collection)
  • Unscheduled interruptions

5.  Students on the autism spectrum need firm expectations and a structured program that teaches them that compliance with rules leads to positive reinforcement. This approach motivates the youngster to be productive, thus enhancing self-esteem and lowering stress levels (because the youngster sees himself or herself as competent).

6.  Poor concentration, slow clerical speed, and severe disorganization may make it necessary to (a) lessen the child’s homework and classwork load, and (b) provide time in a resource room where a special education teacher can provide the additional structure the youngster needs to complete the work.

Bear in mind that many young people with HFA and Asperger’s are so unable to concentrate that it places undue stress on parents to expect that they spend hours each night trying to get through homework with their youngster.

7.  Consider using a “buddy system.” If one is used, sit the youngster's buddy next to him or her so the buddy can remind the HFA youngster to return to task or listen to the lesson.

8.  A tremendous amount of regimented external structure must be provided if your student is to be productive in the classroom. Assignments should be broken down into small units, and frequent teacher feedback and redirection should be offered.

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