How can I help my autistic child concentrate?

The first time Bella left her son, Grant, in the care of her niece Shay, she was nervous. Grant had been diagnosed with autism six months before, and although his symptoms were milder than what she’d heard from other parents in the autism group she belonged to, she was still anxious about leaving him with a babysitter – even a family member.

“Other (autistic) kids I knew were like, hyper focused on things they really like,” says Bella, “but with Grant, we just didn’t quite experience that.

“He would go from one thing to the other to the next, which was in total contrast with everything else I’d heard, which was that, ‘Oh, autistic kids have a hard time switching gears,’” continues Bella. “But Grant would rip through things, starting this, starting that. I thought, you know, leaving him with a babysitter… would be so exhausting for them.”

Bella wasn’t wrong – it’s true that many kids with autism do have a tough time adjusting from one task or activity to the other. But in the earliest stages of diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder has often been mistaken for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Children with ADHD may be predominantly hyperactive and impulsive, or predominantly inattentive, or be a combination of both. Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), on the other hand, are usually intensely focused.

So, Bella thought, “what gives?”

As it turned out, Grant would be one of the 14 percent of kids who would be diagnosed with both conditions, ADHD and ASD.

Historically, medical professions hesitated to diagnose a child in such a way; the American Psychiatric Association ruled that the two conditions couldn’t coexist in the same individual.

But in 2013, the fifth edition of the DSM-5 was released, which stated that both conditions could indeed occur in the same person.

If your child is like Grant, and you’re having a hard time getting them to pause, focus and pay attention to the task at hand, read on.

Help them develop eye contact. This may be a tough one – lots of kids with autism have a lot of difficulty with eye contact. But by increasing their ability to make contact, your child can develop the skill of joint attention, which happens when you and your child are paying attention to the same object. Experts say that joint attention is critical for numerous forms of development, including language, social and cognitive development.

Some tips:

  • Place yourself at your child’s eye level so it’s natural for them to look at you, not up or down at you

  • If your child is interested in an object, hold on to it near your eyes, so your child’s attention is drawn to the object and your eyes

  • When they do make eye contact, praise them for a job well done!

Help them build attentional skills. When we use play to help reduce stress on our kids, it becomes a reinforcing activity. Using play to develop attention is a fun way to boost your child’s language skills and responsiveness.

Some tips:

  • Keep the activity short and fun, with a goal at the end. When they reach the goal, praise them!

  • Be selective about the games you play; make sure they’re activities that your child enjoys

  • Mirror your child’s behaviors or the way they play so their attention is drawn to what you’re doing. By doing this, your child’s interest will be piqued – and they’ll want to look at you

  • Talk while you’re playing, and explain what you’re doing. It’s telling a story while you’re “performing,” so their attention is sustained a number of ways throughout the activity

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