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Attention! – Pay Attention to Attention in Autism

During a science lesson, the teacher shows a picture of a plant and explains what different parts of the plant do. ‘The root holds the plant in the soil and takes in water; the petals attract insects…’ Johnny, a boy with autism, seems to stare at her and listen to the explanations. However, his attention at the moment is directed to the play of light on the teacher’s earring; the colour changes each time the teacher moves her head.

A few days after the lesson, Johnny goes for a walk with his father. After the rain, the air is fresh and the sun shines through the leaves on the trees. The father shows Johnny the rainbow: ‘Look, Johnny, isn’t the rainbow beautiful?’ Johnny looks at the rainbow and happily announces: ‘The petals attract insects.’ The lesson has been learned.

Attentional problems in autism can be noticed very early in life; for example, infants who would be diagnosed with ASD produced fewer joint attention behaviours, and their vocalisations were less frequent and less advanced than infants with language delay and typically developing infants. Differences in the coordination of early communicative behaviours may have negative cascading effects on social and language development for infants who develop ASD (Heymann et al. 2018). Atypical attention engagement precedes the emergence of difficulties in socialization and communication (Gui et al. 2021).

The most common attentional problem in autism is the failure of autistic people to establish and maintain joint attention, in other words, the ability to attend to the same stimuli as another person. That leads to the failure to share experiences. A joint attention task involves a divided attention task. Autistic children are often unable to divide their attention between the object they want and the person they are supposed to ask for it. In this case, they may concentrate on the object of their desire and either do not perceive the person as a person or even notice the person at all. This results in difficulty to comprehend the meaning of the interaction and hinder social development.

For learning the language, joint attention is essential. A child connects a new word with the object of joint attention. A deficit in joint attention affects the way autistic children learn new concepts. They may hear the word and remember it in connection with a part of the object they are attending to at the moment, or the whole object (different from the object of joint attention but at the focus of their attention, their ‘flashlight’), or even the whole scene (gestalt perception) or sensation they are experiencing at the moment.

“When I was very little, I remember forming wrong associations between words and objects. For instance, when I heard the word banana while I was looking at a cloud, I labelled the cloud “banana”. Then I’d get very confused when in another instance, I looked at the cloud and someone said the word table. I would wonder whether some clouds were called bananas and some tables” (Tito Mukhopadhyay).

Some children find it difficult to have their attention directed by others. One of the reasons may be that they are ‘blind’ to the conventional gestures used to direct someone’s attention such as pointing, holding objects up for inspection, etc.

Another problem autistic children with narrow attentional focus experience is difficulty in switching attention. For many of them shifting attention from one stimulus to the other is a relatively slow process that results in delay of reaction. This ‘too-slow attention switching’ process may be caused by delayed processing of each stimulus.

While interacting with autistic children, we shouldn’t assume that they will always share our attentional focus, even when they look in the same direction.

Some tips:

  • Create a ‘shared attentional focus’. Be sure that the object of joint attention is in the child’s ‘flashlight’. Give all the instructions explicitly (‘Look at what I am looking / what I am holding, etc.). If he looks in the same direction as you do, it does not necessarily mean he sees the same thing. Always try to ‘see’ from the child’s perspective (considering his perceptual and cognitive patterns).

  • Give the child enough time to switch attention from what she is doing to you, and then to the object you are talking about.

  • In the case of ‘one sensory modality focus’, there is no way that the child can make a connection between the verbal label of an object and the object in question, even if the speaker holds the object near her lips. The child with ‘single channel narrow attentional focus’ either does not hear the label or does not see the object. In this case, the teacher has to find out the child’s attentional focus, ‘enter’ it in the same sensory modality (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) the child uses, and either introduce the object of would-be joint attention into this focus or help the child to ‘move’ (shift) his attention to it.

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