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Simple Tips to Manage Attention Seeking Behaviour in Children with Autism

“Mummy, look at this!”, “Daddy, come play with me!” – these are some of the phrases typical children may say when getting attention from parents or other adults. Nonetheless for some children with autism, they may have challenges in communication and their understanding of appropriate social skills, and as a result, may demonstrate inappropriate behaviours to get attention. For instance, a child with autism may throw an item or shout to get attention or a reaction from another person, instead of calling out for mum or dad.

In this week’s blog article, we would like to share some simple tips on ways you can manage attention seeking behaviour in children with autism.

Consequences have an effect on behaviour

An important behavioural principle to remember is that consequences have an effect on behaviour. This principle is based on the operant conditioning method developed by B. F. Skinner, which demonstrated that:

  • A behaviour that is given a reinforcement will likely cause the behaviour to increase
  • A behaviour that is given a neutral consequence or punishment will likely cause the behaviour to decrease

In this regard, whatever behaviour you give attention to, will likely increase. Hence if you child with autism is throwing items to get your attention or simply to get a reaction from you, and in return, you give attention to your child by walking over to your child or looking at your child or raising your voice at your child, your child would have received the attention/reaction they were seeking, and as a result, this throwing behaviour will likely increase in the future.

Ignore inappropriate attention-seeking behaviours

Children with autism may have learned to get your attention by demonstrating inappropriate behaviours. For instance, when they threw a toy and you reacted by looking at them or raising your voice at them, they would have learned that the throwing behaviour generated a response from you. Now, it is important to note that children with autism may not be able to distinguish between positive attention (e.g. praises) and negative attention (e.g. scolding). Hence, your child with autism may throw a toy again to see if they can get your attention or a reaction from you.

The next time your child demonstrates an inappropriate behaviour and you know that the purpose of the behaviour is to get your attention/reaction, we would recommend that you ignore the behaviour and do not give attention to your child or react to the behaviour. While ignoring the behaviour, it would be important NOT to give eye contact or talk to your child in the moment when the behaviour is happening, as doing so would have given your child attention/reaction, and may result in the behaviour increasing or escalating.

In due time, if you continue to ignore the behaviour, your child would have learned that throwing toys no longer gets your attention, and that behaviour will likely decrease over time.

Give your child positive attention for expected behaviours

We highly believe in using positive reinforcement (e.g. rewards, praises) instead of punishment when teaching children with autism new skills and/or expected behaviours. However, in most cases, we tend to overlook the positive behaviours that children with autism often demonstrate, and we tend to focus more on the inappropriate behaviours.

We would recommend switching strategies to give more focus and positive attention to your child with autism when he/she is demonstrating an expected behaviour. For instance, if your child is playing nicely and appropriately with a toy (instead of throwing the toy around), it would be important for you to catch your child demonstrating this behaviour and immediately praise your child – “Wow, I like how you’re playing so nicely with the cars!”

Set aside time to engage your child in a positive manner

Despite their challenges with socialisation, your child with autism loves you (as their parent or caregiver) and enjoys spending time together with you. We would recommend setting aside time regularly (e.g. daily, weekly) to engage with your child in an activity that is enjoyable and meaningful for the both of you.

The type of activities you could engage your child in ranges from interactive play (e.g. chasing, tickling), toy play (e.g. blocks, trains sets) or simply having kid-conversations (e.g. talking about a cartoon or a new toy). During this time, we would strongly encourage parents to put their phones/work aside and positively engage with your child.

This way, your child with autism will receive the positive attention that they desire and begin to learn that they can get your attention through more appropriate means and activities.

If you have any questions or require further support, feel free to give us a call (+603 2094 0421) or send us an email to!