In this three-part series, we will be focusing on key areas that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are likely to struggle with, that may affect the success of your interventions with them, both in the classroom and outside the classroom. In part one of this blog series, we will be looking at attention and listening difficulties and the impact that these can have on children’s progress.

Many children with ASD find concentrating or staying focused on tasks or activities very challenging. They can often be easily distracted by things around them that we wouldn’t even notice, such as the feeling of their clothing, the hum of a computer, or bright lights in the classroom. This can make the child feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable, and the distraction results in them being unable to focus and pay attention. They can present in lots of different ways such as hyperactive, impulsive, or even disruptive.

Children with ASD may also find it difficult to focus on tasks or activities that are outside of their range of interest. They may be able to attend for long periods of time to a task of their choosing on a topic that interests them, but they don’t have the same interest or motivation in completing a task chosen by someone else, that is outside of their interest.

In addition, difficulty understanding the language of the classroom can also affect children’s attention and focus. You can imagine if you are not understanding what someone is saying to you, it’s hard work to keep concentrating on what they are saying, and you wouldn’t be blamed for giving up. Children with ASD often struggle to understand more abstract language, that isn’t within the ‘here and now’, and they can find it challenging to read between the lines to infer and predict from spoken information.

Attention and listening difficulties can have a significant impact on children’s ability to understand and take in information and to learn and make progress. This affects their ability to complete tasks within the classroom and can affect their progress within interventions. The good news is there are strategies you can put in place that can help children with ASD to maintain their attention and focus in order to complete tasks and access learning. Some strategies may work with a particular child, and some may not, so a bit of trial and error and persistence is essential.

Think about the environment

Often the most successful strategies are those that change the environment around the child, rather than trying to change the child, who has a lifelong neurological condition. Try to create a calm, quiet and uncluttered environment for the child to work in. It can be tempting to have lots of support strategies in place for a child, that results in a cluttered workspace, but this can make it even more challenging for the child to focus on what you are asking them to. Try and keep a record of times that the child has been able to successfully focus on a task and times when they find this more challenging, and look for any patterns. Is it to do with a particular type of task, is it in the same location and could be to do with something in the environment that is distracting, or is it that their attention drops after a certain period of time and they need a movement break? This can help you to understand what is having an impact on the child and to put targeted strategies in place.

Make expectations explicit

We can all find it difficult to motivate ourselves to complete a task if we’re not sure we will be able to do it, and we don’t know how it will take us. This is exactly the same for students with ASD and presenting them with a task (or tasks to do) can be overwhelming. It is important to make the expectations for tasks or activities explicit, as this will help to motivate children with ASD to complete them and reduce any anxiety. Use visual support, such as a timetable or task management board to show the work task(s) they will be completing and when they will have a break or reward. Show what the child needs to have achieved for the task to be complete, for example, that they need to write three sentences about a picture. Start small and then build on the child’s successes, starting with short work tasks.

Use motivators

Using the child’s interests can be a really successful way of motivating them to complete adult-chosen tasks. This could mean providing rewards or break activities linked to their interests or trying to bring their interests into the task. For example, if they were working on measuring angles and love dinosaurs, see if they can measure the angle between a dinosaur’s tail and their body.

Think about your language level

Keep your spoken language simple and short, especially when giving the child instructions. Try to make sure that you don’t use too much abstract language when talking, that isn’t in the here and now. Asking the student to do good listening, can be difficult for them to understand, as it’s not something that is easy to see, so make the rules of good listening explicit and use visual supports to back this up. If you are introducing a new word or concept, keep the rest of your language simple and easy for the child to understand, at their level of understanding.

Alternate between different types of tasks

Children with ASD will have different learning strengths and needs, meaning that different learning methods (e.g., visual, kinaesthetic) will be more or less beneficial. Try and alternate time between quiet tasks involving listening, and more active tasks. Children with ASD can struggle to generalise skills that they have learned in one task, or context, to others, so it is important to complete tasks in a range of different ways and in different contexts. If the child is able to measure the angle between the dinosaur’s tail and their body in a picture, can they measure the angle between their chair leg and the floor, or can they find a 90-degree angle in the playground?

Look out for our next blog in this series where we will be looking at the impact of rigidity of thought on the outcome of interventions for children with ASD.

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