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Autism and Attention Seeking Behaviors

Written By muhammad sokhibul on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | 11:07 PM

Attention can be a tricky function to intervene on, because most attention seeking behaviors really grab people's attention... that's why kids use them. If a child bites your arm, throws a plate of food at you, or yells out curse words in the classroom, you will probably have a reaction to those things. However, your reaction is exactly what the child wants. The good news is you don't have to ignore these behaviors forever, which is impossible anyway. What you need to do is show the child a better, more socially appropriate way to gain the attention they are clearly craving.
If I want some cake, I can choose to make the cake myself and carefully measure ingredients, mix them together, and then make my own frosting as the cake bakes. Or I can just buy a cake from the store. Assuming both options have comparable cost and quality, there is much less effort involved to buy the cake, and I'm still getting what I want. Think of behavior like that; the goal is to teach the child a quicker and better way to get what they want. It takes much more effort for a child to throw themselves on the floor and tantrum to get Mom's attention, than it does to hand her a card that says "Play with me."
What do attention seeking behaviors look like?
Attention seeking behaviors are going to produce the desired goal of attention. This could be "good" or "bad" attention. The student in class who yells out curse words to make his peers laugh is getting "good" attention. After the other kids laugh the teacher may deliver a reprimand and scold the student, which is "bad" attention. However, both sources of attention are feeding the problem behavior. To an attention seeking kid, he/she doesn't care if you are praising them or scolding them: attention is attention.
Common attention seeking behaviors include: cursing/potty mouth, talking out in the classroom, crying/whining, lying, off task behaviors, shouting/talking loudly, bothers peers in the classroom, screaming, insults people, out of seat behavior in the classroom, kicks the back of your seat in the car, hits/swats at peers, spits, throws objects, and breaks toys.
Why do children engage in attention seeking behaviors?
Attention seeking behaviors serve the function of gaining adult or peer attention, so the child is most likely to engage in these behaviors when they feel ignored, unattended, unsupervised, or see others getting attention and they are not. Typically these children either don't know how to appropriately gain attention, or when they use appropriate methods of gaining attention it isn't rewarded. You may be thinking "Why wouldn't someone reward the child if he/she is appropriately trying to gain attention?" That issue is much more common than many people realize. Think about a 4 year old with Autism who is grocery shopping with her Dad. She is being quiet, appropriate, and keeping her hands to herself, which her Dad is grateful for so he can focus on shopping. After several minutes in the store, the child is bored and begins to make noises and knock things off shelves. Her father scolds her, and gives her a short lecture in the middle of the aisle. Do you see what happened right there? The daughter received no attention for appropriate behavior, and TONS of attention for inappropriate behavior.
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