Introduction to Building Attention

Building Attention Skills

The ability to focus or to sit down and do work, stay long enough at the dinner table to finish a meal, and pay attention to a teacher in person or online, are all skills that require, among others, the skill of Attention.


Attention is the ability to stay focused and pay attention for increasingly long periods of time. It is one of the key foundational skills, in addition to Motivation, Cooperation and Imitation. These must be in place, before a child can learn more complex skills like speech, play and academics.

The Importance of Attention

Attention is important from childhood all the way to adulthood.


In childhood, children need to pay attention when a teacher is teaching, which includes not just sitting still, but looking at the teacher and understanding what is being said. They also need to pay attention to play with their toys long enough without running off. 


In adulthood, adults need to pay attention in conversations, meetings or to get work completed. 


Hence, the skill of attention is developed from a young age and increases as one grows older.

Why is attention difficult for children with autism?

Below are common reasons why attention can be difficult for children with autism:

  1. They may still not yet have the strong levels of motivation and cooperation necessary to be willing to sit and attend to something.
  2. Children with autism are more likely to engage in self-stimulatory, or stimming behaviours. If a child is participating in self-stimulatory behaviours or perseverating on other fixated interests, this makes it challenging for the child to be able to focus on a specific task or conversation. Some children may use stimming as a means of task avoidance as well.

Autism and ADHD

Another developmental condition that includes challenges with attention, and is often confused with autism – is ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Although autism and ADHD share similarities in that a child with autism might have difficulties with attention, ADHD is different in that children with ADHD do not typically show the social, behavioural and language difficulties children with autism have, such as stimming.


If you have concerns your child has symptoms of ADHD, maybe even in addition to their autism, please seek professional advice on this.

Foundational Programs of Attention

This series will focus on the foundational programs that help build attention in children with autism:

  1. Matching
  2. File Folders
  3. Sorting
  4. Puzzles
  5. Additional Attention Tasks


The series will also end with common troubleshooting scenarios that occur when teaching Attention, and what can be done to manage them.


More advanced attention skills, like paying attention to a teacher in a classroom, will be addressed in a future series, likely preparing for school. However, this series will form a crucial foundation towards that later series.

The Developmental Milestones of Attention

The Developmental Milestones of Attention provide a guideline of reasonable attention spans for children depending on their age, which should set a goal to work towards. 


How long a child spends on a task also depends on other distractions, like how noisy their environment is, how hungry they are or how interesting the activity is. A cause for concern is if a child’s attention span is much shorter than the average for their age. 

Your Turn

  1. Observe your child at natural points throughout the day – when they’re playing, when you’re working with them, at meal times. Use a timer to estimate how long they spend on an activity before losing focus. Signs they are losing focus include when they attempt to leave, or switch to another task.
  2. Find the average for your child’s attention span.

A child’s maximum attention span will be used as a basis for building it to age-appropriate levels.