At The Autism Treatment Center of America, when we talk about interactive attention span, we’re referring to the times when a child turns his/her focus on us. Whether a child is looking or talking to us, or waiting on our participation, we cherish and love when this happens.
However fleeting, we’ve all experienced times like this with our children. Whether it’s tickling, giving piggy back rides, playing Hide ‘N Seek, or singing a song, this valuable time together gives our child an opportunity to practice their interactive attention span. And the more social connection we have with them, the more it helps our children socialize with others – including their neurotypical peers.
These four principles will help you identify and lengthen your child’s interactive attention span:
- Everything and anything can become a game. It’s not about the activity or the game you’re playing, but how you and your child interact with each other. Whether it’s a made up game like counting freckles on each other’s arms or jumping over LEGO® blocks, when your child is “lit” up, and their eyes are bright and smiling, they are expressing interest in what is happening, and showing an interest in YOU. This is the goal of the game and the interaction that you want to foster and lengthen. The important result is that your child is motivated by this activity, and that the activity includes YOU. Often people miss this type of opportunity to expand an interaction because they think it has to look like a traditional children’s game. It doesn’t. Anything can be an important learning tool that it is fun to interact with another person.
- Notice what your child likes and do more of that! When you find yourself in a game with your child, make note of the particular part of the game they enjoy the most. Do they especially like action, e.g. watching the way a scarf floats through the air, or the way the scarf feels as it falls onto their face? Or perhaps they love what you do in the game, such as the anticipation you create before throwing the scarf up into the air, or the way you stomp your feet as the scarf lands. Once you discover what they enjoy, emphasize that part of the game. It not only adds to the fun, but it also encourages your child to engage longer in the interaction with you.
- Lengthen our attention span! Let’s look at our own (often short) attention span and beliefs about our children. I have witnessed parents and caretakers introduce twelve different games within a 15-minute session. This usually stems from a variety of things. For example, when our child stops playing a game and opts for an ism/stim, I often hear the following:
- “My child was bored with the game.”
- “My child no longer wanted to play the game.”
- “He does not like this game.”
- “I wasn’t exciting enough, so he didn’t want to continue playing with me.”
In The Son-Rise Program®, we have a different perspective as to why our children may leave a game to ism/stim. We believe that it does not necessarily mean that our child doesn’t want to continue playing the game, but that they need to break and ism/stim for a while in order to refocus. The ism actually helps them get to a place where they are able to interact with you more while playing the game. It’s with this understanding that we suggest joining in with our children as they ism/stim. Once they reconnect by giving us a “green light” (i.e. a prompt where your child either looks at you, talks to you or touches you) we will introduce the same game we were playing before they decided to ism/stim. This gives them the opportunity to continue the game and lengthen their attention span. It also gives your child other social opportunities (e.g. – verbal communication or physical participation) during one particular activity. For example, if you asked your child to say the word “throw” within a ball game, by reintroducing the same activity, you offer your child another opportunity to learn the word. We may have the chance to bring back the same game five times in a one-hour session. Of course, if they clearly show us that they are interested in another game, we’d simply play that one. However, if you initiated a new game, and they enjoyed it, after they ism, bring back the game you were just playing.
- Call your child back to the game! You can do this by simply asking your child to stay in the game. You could say something like, “I can give you another swing –the biggest swing yet – if you come over here again.” Or “There are more scarves to throw into the air, come and see.” Ask them to come back to play twice, if they don’t respond, then either join them in another game of their choice, or in their ism/stim. By using this technique, many children we work with stay a little longer. Give it a go! You have nothing to lose by asking.
When you passionately join your child’s repetitive behaviors, maybe by lining up cars, running to and from a wall, or reciting a line from Star Wars, you not only help build their attention span, but you also cherish the very things that make them unique.