Oh, ignore her – she’s just trying to get attention!

It’s true. Kids with autism can use some very unusual and irritating tactics to get our attention.

While that may be true – Are you sure that attention is motivating the behaviour you are seeing? How do you know this is the case?

Sometimes in spite of our best intentions we make assumptions about a child’s behaviour based on our own perceptions, our mood and our circumstances– and those assumptions can be wrong.

What if you are wrong? What if the child is seeking attention because they are very scared, anxious or feeling overwhelmed? Is ignoring the behaviour the right thing to do?


When life is going on around us and we are being pulled in a million directions it is hard to take extra time to reflect on what else may be going on with a child. What could be underlying an obnoxious behaviour? Other factors may be at play that we cannot easily detect. Parents and educators sometimes instinctually jump to a conclusion or even interpret the data with an attitude of certainty (and judgement).


Wrong assumptions can lead us to respond in ways that are not very compassionate or helpful. The way I respond to a kid who is wanting my attention because she is sick or scared is very different from the way I would respond if I believed that she doesn’t like me paying attention to another child. Our responses to the behaviour of others have a lot to do with the meaning we attach to their behaviour. Finding a clear answer as to why a child with autism is doing something is extremely tricky.


Very often kids with autism lack the skills needed to behave in ways we deem appropriate. Many do not have the ability to ‘interpret’ their own body signals and/or emotions accurately, let alone express what they are feeling to someone else. Even a high degree of intelligence and the ability to speak does not guarantee that the message will be relayed accurately. This is not just an autism problem: If you have ever struggled to explain your needs or feelings, you know what I mean!


Waiting for a turn or to get someone’s attention is a skill that can be very challenging for any child and especially for a child with autism. Knowing how to wait needs to be taught (usually using visual supports) and practiced over and over and over.


Most of the time, changing a child’s inappropriate behaviour requires US to change OUR behaviour. ?


1. Gather more information about the possibilities behind a persistent behaviour that appears to be attention seeking. Ask questions of people who spend time with the child (educators, parents, caregivers).

What may be causing anxiety for the child? Are there health or sleep issues? Any significant changes in the child’s life?

And don’t forget to ask the child! What do you want when you______? How do you feel when you______? What do think think I feel when you______? (you may need to use a drawing of stick people with thought bubbles to help the child answer)


2. Ask yourself: How do I want the child to act? 

How would a typical child act in the same situation? What are the component skills needed to respond appropriately? Is the child able to demonstrate the component skills consistently?


3. Teach the skills necessary to wait and to use appropriate ways to get attention – what do you want the child to do?

Kids with autism (like all of us) will use behaviours that are the most efficient in getting our attention. We have to make it easier and more effective to use appropriate ways to gain our attention. Be absolutely sure to respond immediately to any appropriate attempts. Failing to do so is simply making the poor behaviour stronger because it gets the job done more efficiently!


Summing It Up

Attention seeking gets a bad rep. Let’s face it, we ALL seek attention – it is part of being human. We need to recognize whether the actions taken to get our attention are ‘appropriate’ given the child’s developmental skills and age (not chronological age) and the situation. The key is to teach the skills and be ready to practice them often and reinforce the actions we want to increase. This all takes time, patience, compassion and a willingness to be wrong.


Sharing the journey,


P.S. I want to hear from you!

Please share your thoughts and as always, please share this post with anyone you know whose life is touched by autism.


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