Keeping Your Child Focused When He Returns to School

For children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the world is a jumble of high-intensity stimuli all competing for their attention and often overloading their ability to concentrate on what is important at that moment.

That creates a challenge at school, where children are exposed to multiple inputs at once, particularly in classrooms with other students.

The good news is that there are steps a parent can take to increase their child’s ability to focus and succeed when they return to school.

Q. What To Do When Children with Autism Struggle with Focus

A. Research suggests that children with ASD have an impaired ability to recognize the priority of tasks. Additionally, they may choose more pleasing tasks even when they know another task is a higher priority. For parents and teachers, that means tailoring tasks that require their attention in a way that they enjoy and also providing clear instructions, and visual supports, where appropriate. Adults must also communicate to the student the value of the task by providing feedback and consequences. These consequences include offering positive reinforcement — offering something the child wants or enjoys, such as food, a toy, or a favorite activity, once the task is completed. Children on the autism spectrum often need these extrinsic reinforcers to motivate them to complete tasks in school.

Q. How Can a Child’s Challenging Behavior Be Reduced?

A. Challenging behavior is reduced when appropriate alternative behaviors are taught. Often, it is not what the child is communicating, but how they are communicating that is the problem. It is perfectly appropriate for a child to say they are tired, overstimulated, they need help, or that this work is too hard for them; it is not okay to do it through the use of distracting, interfering, or harmful behaviors. In some cases, these are the only behaviors that the child knows, or have worked for him in the past. By teaching appropriate alternatives and making the inappropriate behaviors “not work” for him anymore, appropriate behavior increases naturally and inappropriate behavior decreases.

Q. What About the Classroom Environment?

A. Children with ASD can be very sensitive to environmental stimulation, like ambient sounds, artificial scents and concentrated lighting. This can include the hum of air conditioning or a refrigerator, the smell of candles or air fresheners, and the glare of bright lights — even of sunlight. Certain textures that feel rough on your child’s skin might irritate them and divert their attention. Make sure to discuss with your child’s teachers the need to remove or minimize these stimulants so your child can focus on the lessons. Gradual desensitization to these stimuli that may be unavoidable in public is also appropriate.

Q. How Do We Communicate Most Effectively?

A. Children with ASD necessarily have some sort of impaired communication. This impairment can include receptive language (understanding) and expressive language (talking). Wherever possible, parents and teachers must try to use clear instructions and perhaps demonstrations or visual cues, since many children with ASD may be visual learners. They also NEED to learn by doing and through consequences. What occurs right after the behavior is going to communicate to the child whether their behavior was appropriate and should be repeated next time a similar situation arises. Adults should provide clear expectations and follow through.

Q. Do Children With Autism Want Friends?

More often than not, children with ASD do want the friendship, and positive attention, of their peers. Television and movies have told us that children with ASD are “in their own world” and want to be isolated. However, this is not necessarily the case. Children with ASD may not understand how to appropriately seek out friendships or have the skills to initiate interaction. They may resort to problem behaviors to get attention. Gaining attention is just one motivator for inappropriate behavior.

Q. Do Teachers Understand the Meaning of Problem Behaviors?

Children with challenging behavior are sending adults the message that something is wrong or that their needs are not being met. There could be many reasons for a single behavior, such as being hungry, tired, bored, sad, or angry. Some children have a hard time knowing how to tell adults they are angry, so they act out in ways that get them into trouble. Other children may engage in behavior that seems destructive because they enjoy the physical sensation of, for example, punching walls or pulling apart clothing. Sometimes children feel unsafe or out of control, so they take inappropriate action over the things they do control, like being able to hurt someone. They may need a break from work, or unable to communicate simple sensations, like a headache or stomachache or anxiety.

Fortunately, a caring and attuned adult can recognize these behaviors and reverse them by providing the support the child needs. It’s important for you to communicate the meaning of your child’s common behaviors to their teachers.

Q. Who Can Help Us with Our Child?

Carolina Coast Behavioral Services serves children, adolescents, and families with the best possible care through a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. Using evidence-based practices, they help children reach their fullest potential by gaining practical life and communication skills, and developing and extending healthy social relationships as a result. Find out how they can help your family by calling 843-259-8853 or visiting