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Improving Visual Attention

When we first start working with a child with autism, we often find that the child does not look at learning materials. The child seems to have a mind of his own and is involved in a lot of sensory stimulatory or defensive behavior that prevents him from paying attention to what we are trying to teach.

I’m sure that if you have a child with autism, or have worked with children with autism, you would know what I’m talking about. In this scenario, we need to think about ways in which we can pull the child out of their own world for a few seconds, or minutes to start with, and then longer periods during which we can teach them.

As I have said before. I really believe that autistic children have brilliant minds hidden under a lot of “ packaging” consisting of sensory issues, and sometimes challenging behaviors that we need to patiently get through. So here are a few ideas for teachers and parents to help them train children with autism to look at learning materials and do things with them.

Consider Sensory issues:

When we attempt to teach children with autism, we must keep thinking about their sensory needs. This is often the biggest barrier that comes between a child with autism and us, and once we are able to get through it, we are able to communicate and teach the child. In future articles, I’ll be writing a lot more about various sensory issues and ideas that help moderate them. For now, here are a couple of things you can keep in mind. Before we expect a child to sit down and look at our materials, we need to make sure that the child has been given opportunities to participate in sensory activities that will cater to his sensory needs. Similarly if there are any factors in the environment that the child is hypersensitive to, we need to try and eliminate them.

Preparing the Place and Time:

Choose a spot where you will teach the child every day for a short period of time. It could be a particular table in one quiet corner of the classroom or house. Ensure that this space is free from other distractions. For the first few days, you can allow the child to just be in that place and do whatever he likes for a certain period of time ( anything between 5 minutes and half an hour). Once the child is familiar with the place, time and routine, you can introduce structured activities.

Planning a reward system:

Pick a favorite toy, activity or sensory reward that you will use while teaching the child. Initially give the child the reward just for sitting in the chair for a few minutes. Slowly, you can grade the time and the response required.

Using Light:

For a child who does not seem to focus on an object at all, you can use this method. In a dark room, place a lamp. Place the learning materials under the lamp. This will focus the attention of the child to the learning materials. Slowly grade the light in the environment.

Using a workbox or a work basket:

A workbox, or a work basket helps add structure and routine to the activity. The child knows that there will be an activity in the box that he needs to do for a short period of time, and once it is done, he will get a reward. This helps children attend, and complete the activity without getting distracted.

Choosing Activities:

Choose short, structured activities to teach the child. Activities can be repetitive but do not prolong them by an unlimited number of repetitions. For e.g. If you want the child to place small stones into a box, keep 5 stones the first day, then grade to 10, 15 and 20. Once the child is able to do 30, you can try a different, and more complex activity.

Do look at the activity section for 3 activities that help to develop visual attention. All three activities are very basic and require very simple actions. None of them require fine coordination or good eye hand coordination. The child can do them by attending to the activity for a very short time. Thus, they are good activities to start with. Once the child understands that he can do the activities that are kept in the box, he will try harder when you introduce slightly more difficult activities.

Higher levels of visual attention:

Once the child starts looking at the materials you can introduce a variety of simple teaching activities. However you need to continue to work on visual skills. Children with autism tend to look at parts and not the whole. Reading and writing, often require them to look at the whole and follow words and illustrations in a sequence. Thus, the child will need to be introduced to activities that require him to scan the whole area, follow lines and also to interpret the whole picture. Some examples are dot to dot activities, marking off a certain letter on a page and interpreting cartoon illustrations. Do keep coming back to this website for more ideas for activities related to visual attention.

Hope these ideas help you to get started. Do share your experiences with teaching a child with autism to look at things.

Also visit the Visual Attention Activities section of this website.

Picture credit: Wikimedia commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Making_soapbubbles-SteveEF.jpg

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