baby looking up with fingers in mouth

Autism and Attention: Making Connections

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You want to learn how you can help you child. It helps to know about the basics of ASD. You can connect this basic information to the small, daily actions you can take to help your child learn and grow.

There is now wide agreement that ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It affects 1 in 54 kids. This understanding replaces past views of ASD as a rare disorder mainly of behavior or speech. “Neurodevelopmental” means ASD is based on the brain’s neurology, or brain wiring. Of course, brain wiring influences learning, functioning, and behavior. Neurology changes dramatically as kids develop, which makes ASD seem like a moving target as a child grows.

Observe with Curiosity

In considering a child’s behavior, then, parents and teachers can keep in mind:

  1. A child’s behavior is shaped by their brain wiring
  2. A child’s behavior can tell us something about him or her

The key is to be curious about what the child is communicating through his actions. Even though the child may not be purposefully communicating, his behavior provides insights. This shift in your own understanding and interpretation is very important. It shapes how you engage with a child.

Key Brain Wiring Differences

Children with ASD have challenges in processing social and emotional information. Most typically developing newborns are drawn to look at faces, which give them information about what people think and like and what is pleasant or unpleasant. Many babies who have ASD do not seem to pay attention to their mother or father looking at them. They may not attend to eyes or enjoy emotional displays like a smile or wide-eyed surprise. The baby may not be interpreting or “reading” facial expressions. It could also be that he is not emotionally or physically calm enough to pay attention to these emotional displays. Sometimes children with ASD focus more on parents’ mouths than their expressive eyes. Not attending to other’s faces is the most consistent discriminating factor for a diagnosis of ASD at one year.

Does this really have an impact on our children’s learning? Yes! Because they attend less to faces, children with autism do not easily follow the gaze of another person to join into what is happening around them. They tend to miss the meaning in facial expressions. Altogether, they miss opportunities to share experiences with others via eye contact (this is called shared attention). When we share attention with another person, we are communicating with them. We look at what interests them. We smile at what pleases them. We are afraid of whatever they show scares them. This happens long before babies have actually the words for conversation. With little or no information from the face, the autistic child’s environment can feel more confusing, surprising, and distressing than it does for a neurotypical child.

Drawing Attention

Research studies on face recognition and ASD give us clues on how to engage our children. We need to draw their attention to our faces and our eyes. We can encourage them to “check in with me!” We can exaggerate our expressions to pique interest.  We may hold favorite toys or snacks near our faces to draw attention there. We can praise them for meeting our eyes. After all, we look at what we are thinking about, so the more our children are attending to others’ faces, the more likely they are to make social connections.

We can do much to help our children grow and learn. Through practice noticing faces and getting even partial information from facial expressions, children can grow their brain wiring for attending to this information. This provides a better understanding of social contexts. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that this joint attention can be overwhelming or intense for a child who isn’t wired for it, so a sprinkling of opportunities for practice throughout the day may help keep the child feeling emotionally regulated and calm.

Authors: Mary Powell, CEA Board President and Beth Dierker, CEA Executive Director.

For more information about autism, read Mary’s earlier post, From Concern to Clarity: Insights for parents’ first steps on an autism journey

Author: Editorial Team

A select group of our board members who have something to say, but want to say it together. We also use this byline for those who wish to write anonymously.

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