How ‘Attention Autism’ Can Benefit Autistic Children
Feb 17, 2023, 6 min read
There are many different approaches that help autistic people develop skills to improve their life experience, and the one we’re shining the spotlight on today is ‘Attention Autism’.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, and this framework is a great one to learn more about if you are the parent, guardian or teacher of an autistic child or teen, and curious to improve your knowledge of the different techniques available.
We’ll take a look at what ‘Attention Autism’ actually is, how it works, how it could benefit all ages, and how to put some of the techniques into practice.
Ready to learn more about this game-changing framework? Let’s dig into it
What is ‘Attention Autism’?
As a reminder, autism is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting how people interact with others, the world around them, and how they understand and respond to sensory information. It can affect people’s experiences differently, and therefore a tailored approach to learning and development is often required to bring the best out in autistic people.
‘Attention Autism’ is one such learning approach which was created to help develop both natural and spontaneous communication skills in children with autism using a mix of visual learning and highly motivating activities.
Many people who have used this approach with autistic children in the past have found it can have a big impact, helping autistic people learn new things by making activities that are “irresistible”. By developing activities that fascinate the person, you naturally open up a line of communication which enables you to teach them something new.
Why was Attention Autism developed?
While lots of young children sometimes find it difficult to pay attention for a variety of reasons, autistic children may find it particularly difficult to focus on things that do not interest them, such as watching a film, walking safely across a road, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or something else. However, when something does interest an autistic child, they may be able to focus on that thing for a long time without shifting their attention.
Attention Autism was first created to help develop the skill of focus in children with autism by a speech and language therapist called Gina Davies, of the Gina Davies Autism Centre. It has now been expanded into several programs available to parents, carers and teachers who want to improve their communication with autistic children.
The approach is based on the idea that successful communication and learning in autistic people should be ‘dynamic, engaging and joyful’, because they learn best when they are enthusiastic and motivated to create.
The Attention Autism approach is designed to create a learning experience for autistic children that they will be excited to communicate about, in order to:
- Develop both natural and spontaneous communication skills and interaction
- Engage attention and improve joint attention
- Share enjoyment during group activities
- Increase attention during adult-led activities
- Increase verbal/non-verbal communication via commentary and building vocabulary
- Have fun!
Are there any downsides to Attention Autism approach?
Attention Autism has had some push-back over the years, as some people in the autistic community believe the approach was developed with neurotypical people in mind, without taking into account the many diverse ways that autistic people demonstrate their attention and listening skills.
That said, the approach offers a toolkit for people seeking to help their autistic family members and students develop new skills, with great success.
How does Attention Autism work?
Attention Autism is a 4 stage programme which builds on the previous stage each time to develop skills. The four stages are:
- Stage 1: The Bucket - A number of fascinating toys or objects are removed from a bucket to help focus their attention
- Stage 2: Attention Builder - A visually stimulating and appealing activity that will engage their attention for a slightly longer period of time
- Stage 3: Attention Shift - To develop their ability to shift focus between different things, they will watch an activity, take their turn, then focus back on the group
- Stage 4: Activity - This is when all the skills are combined to help them take part in an activity from start to finish. For example, they might watch a demonstration, collect their materials, take them to a group table, work together in the group, and then come back to celebrate what they have achieved. This is more about the process rather than the end result, so they should celebrate no matter the outcome
This framework can help to nurture social skills, thinking skills and communication, and the aim is to work up to 20 minutes of focus time within 6 weeks of the program starting.
How do each of the stages work?
Let’s go into each stage in a little more detail:
Stage 1: The Bucket
The leading adult (let’s say that’s you!) will place into a bucket three visually engaging toys or objects that align with the natural interests of the autistic child, and remove them one by one, presenting each one to the group. You will make simple comments about each one to help expand the child’s vocabulary, and demonstrate how they work and what they do.
Don’t give the objects to the children as this can distract them. Instead, encourage them to focus their attention on the objects by showing your own interest and fascination with them. Any other adults in the room should be equally as attentive and interested.
This session should be carried out 4 or 5 times a week, starting with a minute. If all children in the group can pay attention for a minute, add another minute and continue adding until you reach five minutes. When this happens, you are ready to move on to stage 2.
Stage 2: Attention Builder
The next stage is to do an activity that requires a slightly longer period of attention with the aim of increasing this over time. The group will be introduced to a highly appealing activity that aims to sustain and build attention, for example making a sand castle, or painting a picture together.
Stage 3: Attention Shift
As the length of focus time increases, the attention can be shifted and brought back. In stage 3, the child will watch an activity or game of some sort demonstrated by the adult leader, watch others in the group take part, shift their attention to their own participation to take their turn, then return to focus back on the group. This stage has the added bonus of teaching them skills in sharing and waiting their turn.
Stage 4: Activity
This stage encourages more independence as they work through the skills in stages 1, 2 and 3 from start to finish. They will watch a creative demonstration by the adult leader (for example, building something with building blocks), collect their materials (this shifts their attention), take them to a group table and work together (refocusing their attention on the task at hand), then rejoin the larger group to celebrate what they have achieved (shifting their attention back to the group).
- Choose fascinating and appealing toys and objects that will captivate the children you are working with
- Allow children to view the objects coming out of the bucket, but don’t let them touch or play with them — you don’t want them to become immediately distracted by playing with them. Only the adult should demonstrate how they work
- Make the bucket a regular activity taking place at the same time every day, or at least most days
- Everyone in the room should be involved in activities, and even adults demonstrating skills should be watching intently and showing interest, focus and enjoyment
- Any other adults (even if they are only observing) should focus all their attention on the leading adult demonstrating the skills
- Children can stand up if they prefer, and if they struggle to focus that’s OK. This is what you are working towards
- After the bucket goes away, follow this with their favourite activity
How can ‘Attention Autism’ benefit children?
There are many benefits to the Attention Autism program and its components, as it teaches children with autism how to listen to a leading adult, how to shift their focus to different things, how to share and wait their turn, how to work together in a group, and how to build their focus skills slowly over time.
By building the foundations of focus with this program they can continue to increase it further over time, while using the same principles to increase their focus in other important areas of life.
How do I find support for autism?
Or if you think your child may be showing signs of autism, this article could help: Diagnosing Autism: Understanding the Complexities of Identifying Autistic Traits in Children
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private autism assessment or review, to broader mental health care: join us today.