One of the first skills babies learn is how to pay attention to people.
Many skills babies and toddler learn in the first two years of life are based on paying attention to people and activities.
- waving bye bye and copying other simple actions,
- eating food and using utensils,
- playing with toys,
- understanding the names of family members,
- understanding the names of familiar objects and activities, and
- making new sounds and saying a few words.
Just to name a few.
If you notice your child isn’t paying attention when you talk, isn’t responding to their name, only attending to screens and favorite toys, it’s critical it’s addressed right away!
All of your child’s learning depends on their ability to pay attention to people!
I’ll let you know what to do if your child isn’t consistently paying attention to you and several easy strategies to improve this!
Why Isn’t My Toddler Paying Attention to Me?
First, it’s important any hearing issues are ruled out. Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician and have a hearing screening done. If there are concerns about ear infections or possible hearing loss, you’ll be referred to an audiologist or ENT.
Second, call your local early intervention program. They will test your child in all areas of development. If your child qualifies for services, they can set goals and deliver services based on those needs.
Third, take the MCHAT. This is a simple screener you can answer for your child that can let you know if there is a risk of autism.
Consistently paying attention to people when their name is called, when directions are given, when items are being pointed at, and during interactions are difficult for many autistic toddlers, two year-olds, and preschoolers. They are often more motivated by interacting with toys and objects.
Therefore, we want to address these concerns right away.
How Can I Increase My Child’s Attention?
You don’t need to be an expert in autism or child development!
However, there are some simple and effective strategies improve your child’s attention and learning.
Tip #1: Observe and Find Favorites
The first step in improving your child’s attention is observing what he does. Just watch him. What toys and activities does he naturally go to? What’s easy for him to do? Write these things down. Don’t go off of your memory or what you think he likes — actually watch him.
Also, watch for anything your child likes that might be unusual. This might be watching running water, opening and closing drawers, turning lights off and on, spinning in circles, etc.
In addition, observe across different times of day and routines including meal times, playing with toys, social interactions, caregiving routines (diaper changes, dressing, etc), and community outings.
Lastly, think about activities or times of day when he is more social and you naturally have more interactions with him. Note those time as well.
Tip #2: Decrease Distractions
I’m the person who had to find the quietest corner in the library to study. Any noise or movement made it very hard for me to pay attention. If someone was turning pages in their book or chewing gum, I was out of there!
Look around your home and write down what you can change to decrease distractions including:
- turning off and putting away screens
- putting away extra toys and activities
- keeping siblings busy elsewhere
- finding a quiet room with fewer items in it
In order for your child to pay attention to you, we need to drastically decrease what else might capture their attention. You need to be the best thing in the room!
And remember — we need to give attention to get attention! We need to put away our distractions as well!
Tip #3: Be in Their Face
I want it to be as easy as possible for your child to pay attention to you! Initially, I want them to have to do as little work as possible.
Therefore, we need to be right in front of them!
When you are playing with him, feeding him, showing him something, reading a book, be right in front!
It can feel a little unnatural to begin with — you want to have him in your lap when you’re playing or reading!
However, I want to see your child look at you a lot during interactions. I want him to see what your facial expressions are. He needs to see your eyes and mouth.
Be front and center!
Tip #4: Choose Your Time Wisely
I can’t pay attention if I’m tired, hot or cold, hungry, thirsty, have a headache, etc.
Your toddler can’t either.
Choose times of day when your child is fairly happy, awake and alert, and has recently eaten.
Also, choose times of the day to focus on attention when YOU can pay attention!
If you’re making dinner for the family, finishing up a work project, tired and hungry yourself, choose another time.
Think back to your child’s favorite activities and when he seems more interactive. Focus on those first.
Tip #5: Make Them Want to Be with You
Toddlers and preschoolers are little social monsters! They want to ask for things, tell you what they don’t like, show you something they did, and talk about what they see.
We usually don’t have to motivate toddlers and preschoolers to interact with us. Most of the time, they won’t leave us alone!
A lot of toddlers and preschoolers with autism are content to be by themselves. Sometimes they want you in the same room or next to them, but they aren’t interacting with you in a typical way.
In that case, we need to increase their motivation to interact with us!
How can you do that?
- Look back to the toys and activities that you noticed your child goes to a lot and bring a couple of those out.
- Bring out something new such as a toy or snack they haven’t seen in a while.
- Be animated! This is hard for some of us adults, but we often need to be really animated to get our child’s attention.
- Control access to the items they want. Instead of giving him the whole package of fruit snacks, all of the puzzle pieces, the whole bucket of dinosaurs, etc., hand out the items one by one.
Tip #6: Decrease Demands
Our goal is to help our toddlers and preschoolers with autism pay attention to us!!
Therefore, that needs to be our main focus.
Years ago, I went to a conference and an occupational therapist said a quote that I will never forget — “When you increase demands, you decrease capacity.”
We are already working on something that’s hard for our kids — paying attention to us! That’s the demand.
If we then add more demands, we really decrease their capacity (and probably their motivation) to interact with us!
Try to avoid these demands:
- Asking lots of questions — What’s that? What are you doing? Where’s the dog? What color is the bus?
- Giving directions — Hand mommy the purple dinosaur.
- Leading the interaction too much — Put the car on the road. Go get your animal book. Let’s feed the baby.
Tip #7: Do What They Do
Toddlers and preschoolers learn by copying kids and adults they see around them. They are highly motivated to copy actions, copy sounds, and copy words. That’s how they learn!
However, this is usually a skill that is really difficult for a lot of our youngest kids with autism.
Sometimes, if we do what they do instead, we can capture their attention and that can lead to an interaction. Sometimes kids with autism are motivated by us copying them.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Make the sounds they make — in play, when babbling, when eating, etc.
- Do the same actions they are with their toys — line up the dinosaurs, zoom the cars off the table, splash the water in the tub, etc.
You’ve tried what was listed above, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
Here are some additional strategies/tips to help with attention:
- Look across all daily activities, not just play.
- When is your child most interactive? The least? Focus on when he’s most interactive first. Get some quick wins. For instance, if your child loves bath time, start with that activity.
- Avoid complicated toys.
- If there are lots of parts, batteries, set up, etc., put those away for right now. These usually lead to tears, frustration, or your child may just walk away before you’re done setting it all up.
- Go for movement.
- Movement helps us pay attention! Think of when you’re stuck sitting at a conference or meeting. You feel better when you are able to get up and move around for a couple of minutes. Then you can focus again.
- If you are focusing on attention during a quieter activity (books, puzzles, etc.), let your child be up and active for a few minutes before.
- Motor activities can be VERY motivating for a lot of our kids. If she isn’t playing with toys yet, but loves the swing…GREAT! Swing her a few times, stop the swing, wait for eye contact or smile or body movement, and then continue.
- Use the highchair.
- This is a fantastic tool!! It keeps our kids from running away. It puts our kids in a position that’s easy for them to make eye contact with us. We are right in front of them.
- If your child hates the highchair, still give it a try. Have their absolute favorite snack or item in their high chair. As soon as they get in, they get their reward.
- If you hate the high chair and your child does as well, don’t force it!
- Adjust expectations.
- Avoid comparing what your child is doing the other kids in the neighborhood, siblings, cousins, etc.
- Keep in mind — what is my child able to do right now? If interactions generally last 20 seconds, let’s go for 30 seconds and then up to one minute. If your child can tolerate you being in their space for a couple of minutes and then he’s done, start to push that tolerance little by little.
- Avoid “should” — He’s two, he should be talking / should be playing with toys / should be looking at books / should like cars and trains, etc. Again, start where your child is at RIGHT NOW, and gradually increase the demand.
- Give extra cues.
- Often we just use vocal reminders/cues with our toddlers and preschoolers with autism.
- Try tapping their shoulder, tapping your nose, changing the volume of your voice, using a sing song tone of voice, put their hand on your face, touch their nose, etc.
- Use cues that your child is comfortable with.
- No screens.
- When you want your child to pay attention to you, you don’t want screens in the area. We usually can’t compete!
- Back off on hard days.
- No one slept last night. Mom is in bed sick. Yesterday was insane.
- Back off on hard days and when things are ok, start again.
Paying attention to people is critical for learning, but is often difficult for our youngest kids with autism. Therefore, we need to implement strategies and set up situations to teach and practice this skill.
We need to increase our child’s motivation to interact with us more often throughout the day and for longer amounts of time!
The above strategies are a great place to get started and can be used across any activity you already do daily — meals, play, bath, dressing, outside, etc.
Remember to start where your child is at and gradually increase the demand!
Think back to when you taught your child to walk:
- You started out slow.
- You gave lots of help initially.
- You were super excited for that first step on their own.
- Keep that in mind with this skill too!
Last week’s blog covered my favorite book for parents that have young kids with autism! If you want more help, this is a great book to grab!
Any strategies or tips that have worked well for you? I’d love to hear about them!