Finally we had an appointment for my autistic two and a half year old to see the complex needs speech and language team. I was pretty disappointed to hear that they wanted to work on attention not speech. At the time I couldn’t see the bigger picture all I wanted was for my child to speak, however it is impossible to teach communication to a child that is not paying you attention so this needs to be the starting point.
My first experience of Attention Autism was not a good one, I had been invited to a speech group at the local hospital that would run for four weeks and introduce Attention Autism. Well after sitting for an hour trying to hold my totally uninterested child down while the speech therapist pulled items out of a bucket I was not impressed. A couple of years on and my son has built some great attention skills, as with most therapies for young children with autism it is tough at first and requires tons of patience from the adults, I found this one worth it.
Why is attention so important?
It is important to work on shared attention and communication skills early on. You need to gain someone’s attention before they can listen to you. All children need to develop attention skills.
Shared attention and shared experience are significant factors in how we learn, develop and understand the world around us. If you can follow what someone is pointing to you can understand what they are talking about. Shared attention is very difficult for many young autistic children, they can also focus intensely on a limited range of interests, have difficulty with shifting attention or focusing attention on more than one thing (some may find it very difficult to look and listen at the same time as they need to focus on one or the other).
Gaining attention from an autistic child
You need to understand what your child is interested in, what do they have positive reactions to (e.g. bubbles, light up toys). Take time to try different things and have a good understanding of what works. The activity needs to be irresistible to the child if you want them to engage with you. Many autistic people are very visual so be visually appealing, colourful, exciting.
As much as possible reduce distractions (TV, toys, other people), be the most exciting thing in the room. Under-fives can rarely focus on more than one thing. I appreciate this can be particularly hard when a child is also trying to do anything other than engage with you, I remember being advised to remove all distractions, so I tried an empty room, my son played with a speck of dirt on the floor then a plug socket. It can be heart-breaking having to work so hard to simply engage with your child my best advice is keep going it will get easier.
Work on shared attention and turn taking. Teaching your child to wait using phrases like ‘waiting’, ‘1,2,3, go’ and ‘ready, steady, go’ and using them often will help with understanding. It may seem like it doesn’t work for a very long time but it will eventually make a difference and when it does it really is worth it. Make sure you start by waiting or taking turns very quickly and this can be increased as your child develops their ability to wait. Good ways to do this can be using lift the flap books, anticipation games like blowing bubbles, rolling a ball, simple games including ‘my turn’ and ‘your turn’ (a favourite in our house is pop up pirate).
What is the Attention Autism programme
Attention Autism was developed by Gina Davis, it is an intervention used in relation to speech and language development for children over two and a half with autism. Attention Autism goes through a series of stages that intend to encourage spontaneous communication through visually engaging and motivating activities.
Stage 1 – the bucket
The first stage is an adult led agenda, getting the child to focus. It requires a group of children and is often implemented at a nursery / school setting, playgroup or speech therapy group. Ideally you would have 6-8 kids in the group. However don’t let this put you off doing it at home, the more you practice these skills even just with adults the better.
You need a bucket or bag that you have filled with some attention grabbing items such as light up toys, bubbles, balloons, wind-up toys. Party bag fillers and pound shops are great for this sort of thing.
You need the group of children (if doing it at home get siblings, granny, friends involved), to sit – yes this is a particular challenge for many and may require lots of adult support initially. As the group is sat in a semi-circle facing the adult with the bucket or bag you can begin with a song or phrase that you use each time so the child will understand what is happening. For example we tap the bucket as we sing ‘I have something in my bucket, in my bucket, in my bucket, I have something in my bucket, what could it be’, then straight away the adult pulls out one of the items, an example may be a balloon that is blown up and then let go. It is instantly put away and you move onto the next item.
The idea is that stage one is grabbing the child’s attention, you need to be exciting and initially move through the items quickly. You probably only want to do about 3-4 quick items for stage one.
Stage 2 – the attention builder
This needs to be an activity that is great to watch and will hold the child’s attention, this can be used to build on sequencing and vocabulary. There are so many great ideas, you need to have all the items prepared before you do it with the child. Here are some of my favourites:
Ice cream splat – get an ice cream cone, fill it with foam (I use mouldable foam soap), then turn over the ice cream and splat it on a piece of paper – ensuring you
are very animated and exciting to watch as you do this, you want the child to enjoy watching and following the short sequence.
Making a volcano, mixing baking soda with vinegar.
Make cornflour worms, mix cornflour and water together to form a thick liquid, then pass this through a colander from a height and it should look like worms coming out.
Strap a pen to a toy car and drive it around a piece of paper, drawing a shape as you go.
Use a flour shaker over a template.
Fill a shape with sand, turn it over, and reveal the shape, then splat it with your hand.
Flower pot rocket, you need two small plastic flower pots, tape over the holes on one with masking tape. For the activity cover the taped pot with foam, then place the other pot over it quickly so the foam spirts out the top like a rocket.
Stage 3 – the interactive game
This is where the child is to take a turn, this can be a turn of the activity they have just seen in stage two. As the child’s skills develop you can increase the length of the activity and complexity of the steps. A simply way to increase the ice cream splat or flower pot ideas is to use a spray bottle filled with food colouring and add in a step where this is sprayed onto the foam. It is important that the child learns to take their turn when asked and to see other children taking their turns.
Stage 4 – independent working
When a child has progressed to stage 4, they will be provided with a basic set of instructions (usually visually) to complete an activity alone, for example a basic Lego or Duplo structure. The child is then expected to take it away and complete the activity independently.
Attention Autism is a set procedure and I would encourage you to talk to your child’s setting about implementing it or something similar, there are courses available to providers from Gina Davis. Children can develop skills by watching and shouldn’t be hindered by a lack of speech and language.
Setting up an attention bucket or bag at home and using it once a week is very simple and is a good support to teaching attention skills, it may be hard initially but when your child understands the process they are likely to enjoy it. There are lots of examples and suggestions on the Gina Davis autism centre Facebook group and her website. If you make sure the activities and attention grabbing items are pitched at your child’s level you should see progress.
Where to buy a Bucket for Attention Autism:
I wanted to get a bucket as that was what was being used by my son’s Pre-school and local autism playgroup. It took me ages to find so here is a link to the one I bought from a store on ebay. Please note this is an affiliate link so you will be purchasing via ebay and I may receive commission if you buy from this link.