If you want to improve a child’s communication the first place to start is with attention. I’m not going to lie the first time I heard this I was really irritated. We had waited a long time for our appointment with the complex needs speech and language team. I was pretty disappointed to hear that they wanted to work on attention not speech with my 2 year old. At the time I couldn’t see the bigger picture, all I wanted was for my child to speak. However it’s impossible to teach communication to a child that doesn’t pay attention. So attention does need to be the starting point.
Our first Attention Autism experience was not great
The first time I was introduced to Attention Autism it did not go well. It was at a speech therapy group session at the local hospital to introduce Attention Autism. Well after sitting for an hour trying to hold my totally uninterested child as the speech therapist pulled items out of a bucket, I was not impressed. As with most therapies for young autistic children it is tough at first and requires tons of patience from the adults. For us this one did pay off in time. Incidentally I attended the same group a couple of years later with my youngest. A far more successful session because I understood the goal and this time my son was already familiar with ‘bucket therapy’.
The purpose of this post is to look at why attention is important, how to get attention. Tell you what Attention Autism is including the different stages along with our favourite attention builders, resources and activity ideas.
Why is attention so important?
You need to gain someone’s attention before they can listen to you. All children need to develop attention skills and the earlier the better. Shared attention and shared experience are an important part of 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. Many also have difficulty shifting attention or focusing attention on more than one thing. Some people find it very difficult to look and listen at the same time, they need to focus on one or the other.
Tips for getting attention from an autistic child
You need to understand what your child is motivated by, what do they have positive reactions to (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 being visually appealing, colourful, exciting is a great way to get attention.
As much as possible reduce distractions (TV, toys, other people). You need to 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. Using consistent phrases will also support speech development. 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. As your child develops their ability to wait time taken for turns can be increased.
Ways to develop attention, turn taking and waiting skills:
- 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 Attention Autism Therapy?
Attention Autism is an intervention, developed by Gina Davies to support speech and language development for autistic children over the age of two and a half.
Attention Autism goes through a series of stages that intend to encourage spontaneous communication through visually engaging and motivating activities.
What are the Attention Autism stages?
- the bucket
- the attention builder
- the interactive game
- independent working
Ideally you would use a white board listing the stages you are about to do them. Probably with pictures that get crossed off as you go so the child has a visual aid.
Attention Autism 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. Check out my post on bucket fillers for ideas on what to include in your attention bucket.
The bucket therapy session
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. Once the group is sat in a semi-circle facing the adult with the bucket (or bag) you can begin with a song or phrase.
Using a song that you use each time will support the children to understand what is happening. 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, for example a balloon that is blown up and then let go. It is instantly put away and you move onto the next item.
The idea at stage one is just grabbing the child’s attention. You need to be exciting and to move through the items quickly. You probably only want to do about 3-4 quick items for stage one. Make sure the activities and attention grabbing items are pitched at your child’s level and you should see progress.
Attention Autism 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. You need to have all the items prepared before you do it with the child and in some cases may want to practice in advance. There are so many great attention builder ideas one of our favourites is the Flower Pot Rocket.
The Flower Pot Rocket for stage two Attention Autism
You need – two small plastic flower pots, parcel tape and mouldable foam soap
In advance tape over the holes on one of the flower pots with parcel tape.
When you are ready to do the activity cover the taped pot with foam. Then place the other pot over it quickly so the foam spurts out the top like a rocket.
For more stage two ideas I have a great post on 17 different attention builders.
Attention Autism stage 3 – the interactive game
This is where the child is to take a turn. It 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 flower pot rocket is to use a spray bottle filled with food colouring. You add in a step where this is sprayed onto the foam. It is important that the child learns to take their turn when asked. Also to see other children taking their turns.
Attention Autism 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 activity is demonstrated then the child is 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 the Gina Davies website.
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 will probably be hard at first but when your child understands the process they are likely to enjoy it.
A great place for lots of Attention Autism examples and suggestions is the Gina Davies autism centre Facebook group.
Where to buy a Bucket for Attention Autism
I wanted to get a bucket as they were 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 amazon – children’s plastic storage bin
Attention Autism bucket fillers:
Here are some great resources, attention builders and activities for your attention autism bucket that I would recommend. The links below are affiliate links, this means I may get a small commission if you purchase from the links. This is at no additional cost to you but it does support my blog.
If you want some more ideas for bucket fillers and activities see my bucket fillers post and for seasonal ideas see my activity posts for Easter, Christmas and Hallloween. You may also want to look at my stage 2 attention builders post.
My Building Attention eBook might be of interest. It contains tips on getting attention and 23 fun activities.
It is designed to support young children that struggle with attention and communication. Each activity can be completed quickly using household items.
The Autism Page Online School
You may also be interested in my online course ‘ Communicating with your non-speaking child‘.
Thanks Tom. Yes that song gets stuck in my head all the time xx
This is brilliant. Me and my 3 year old son have recently attended the 4 Sessions with speech and language where they used attention autism in each session. My son wouldn’t sit still for any of the sessions so I knew that bucket time was something that I would need to start doing at home with him, I just wasn’t sure how. Thank you so much for this, I feel like by following these steps I will hopefully be able to improve his attention span.
Thanks Charlotte. I found it hard at first but my son really enjoys attention autism now he has moved on to the later stages. Hi attention really has improved. Hope it goes well for you too xx
I have used Attention Autism on young children and it did help. I am now working with young adults and wonder what will work for them. We have to teach using age appropriate materials (which I am finding difficult). Thanks in advance for your comments.
Are you using the TEACCH method with them if not this might be a helpful way to structure the learning. There is a post on my site an scan easily be adapted to any age.