Attention Autism: A Comprehensive Guide for Teachers

Table of Contents

    What is Attention Autism?

    Attention Autism is an intervention approach designed by speech-language pathologist Gina Davies to support the development of communication, social, and cognitive skills in children with autism (ASD).

    The program uses a progression of visually-based and highly motivating activities to teach children how to pay attention, imitate, and engage socially. The goal is to develop critical skills like joint attention, turn-taking, and shared focus which provide the foundation for language and social interaction.

    Research shows many children with struggle with skills like:

    • Sustaining focus on an activity
    • Shifting attention between people and objects
    • Engaging socially through eye contact, turn-taking, initiation

    Attention Autism aims to break down these skills into manageable components and provide scaffolded learning opportunities through play-based activities. It draws upon principles from developmental psychology, applied behavior analysis, and speech-language pathology.

    When implemented effectively, the program can lead to improvements in:

    • Joint attention and shared focus
    • Communication skills and expressive language
    • Social initiation and reciprocity
    • Imitation and motor skills
    • Cognition, memory, and problem solving
    • Reduced restricted/repetitive behaviors

    This guide will provide teachers with a comprehensive overview of implementing Attention Autism in the classroom across the 4 stages, suggested activities, measuring progress, troubleshooting challenges, and additional teaching ideas.

    Key Principles and Research Basis for Attention Autism

    Attention Autism is based on several key principles and areas of research:

    • Children learn best through play-based activities that are intrinsically motivating. Activities should be multisensory, novel, varied and excite the child’s curiosity to hook them into the activity.
    • Development happens in predictable stages which build upon each other. Attention Autism structures activities to match the child’s current developmental abilities.
    • Joint attention skills are crucial for social-communication development. Attention Autism explicitly teaches joint attention.
    • Autistic children often have difficulty generalising skills learned in one setting/activity to a new setting/activity. Attention Autism focuses on teaching through multiple exemplars to promote generalisation.
    • Parent-mediated interventions can supplement professional services to increase time spent practicing target skills. Attention Autism encourages parents to use the activities at home.
    • There are optimal periods in early childhood development when certain skills develop rapidly. Intervening during these periods can have significant impact on long-term outcomes.
    • A Study suggested there may be a specific developmental delay in which children with autism rely on the presence of objects in their field of vision to guide actions (Leekum et al 2000).

    The activities move through a structured sequence that matches how children typically learn to pay attention, imitate others, and engage socially:

    1. Focus visual attention on one activity
    2. Sustain attention for longer periods
    3. Shift attention between people and objects
    4. Shared social engagement through turn-taking routines

    This staged progression allows the development of joint attention, communication, motor, cognitive, and social skills through intentional, play-based activities.

    The 4 Stages of Attention Autism

    The Attention Autism program consists of 4 stages, each with a specific focus:

    Stage 1: Bucket Activity

    Goal: Teach child to focus visual attention on adult-led activity.

    The teacher fills a bucket with novel, sensory rich objects that will fascinate the child. Items should be colorful, make sounds, or have unique textures/properties. The bucket is kept out of sight until the activity begins so the contents remain a surprise.

    The teacher sings a song while bringing the bucket into view. They remove one item at a time, draw the child’s attention to it, allow them to observe the item, then return it to the bucket. This continues for 2-3 minutes.

    Having multiple exciting items appear from the bucket keeps the child engaged. Not allowing them to handle the object maintains the mystery and novelty. This teaches the child to focus attention on an adult-led activity.

    Stage 2: Attention Builder

    Goal: Teach child to sustain visual attention for longer periods.

    In this stage, the teacher presents activities that consist of multiple steps performed sequentially. Each activity should last approximately 10 minutes and involve visual, sensory components that maintain the child’s interest.

    Examples include: mixing colors with paint, assembling a puzzle, building a block tower. The teacher performs the activity while the child observes. This models the process and teaches the child to pay attention to longer, more complex tasks.

    Stage 3: Interactive Game

    Goal: Teach child to shift attention between people and objects.

    Now the child gets to participate! The teacher models an interactive game, then prompts the child to take a turn. The activities involve exaggerated actions and sensory components to keep the child engaged.

    Examples include: popping bubble wrap, bouncing a ball, finger painting. The teacher initially models the full activity, then performs part of the routine and pauses expectantly, allowing the child to fill in the response. This teaches back-and-forth attention shifting in a social context.

    Stage 4: Tabletop Task

    Goal: Teach child to transition between individual activity and group engagement.

    In this stage, the teacher demonstrates a simple tabletop activity like stringing beads or building with blocks. The child then moves to a designated table with identical materials to complete the task independently. When finished, they transition back to rejoin the teacher and group.

    This teaches the child to focus on individual work, develop motor and problem solving skills, then refocus attention back to the social environment. As skills progress, tasks can involve more steps or last longer.

    Creating an Effective Learning Environment

    Setting up the physical environment appropriately is important for Attention Autism activities to run smoothly:

    • Hold sessions in a quiet, distraction-free space with minimal visual and auditory distractions.
    • Ensure the child and teacher are seated facing each other, relatively close together. Side-by-side and small group arrangements can be introduced later.
    • Have a bin or tub ready to store materials out of sight until used in the activity.
    • Designate a table or work area for independent practice during Stage 4 tabletop tasks.
    • Arrange preferred toys, snacks, or books to transition to after Attention Autism sessions.
    • Use a visual schedule to show the sequence of activities. Cross items off as you progress.
    • For sensory activities, cover surfaces with plastic tablecloths, shower curtains, or tarps to contain messes.

    Following consistent routines and providing structure through visual schedules can help children anticipating coming activities and transitions. Avoid overstimulating environments so the child can focus attention on the teacher and materials.

    The Teacher’s Role

    As the teacher implementing Attention Autism, your role is to:

    • Select materials and design activities that matches the child’s interests, abilities, and challenges. Novelty and an appropriate level of difficulty are key.
    • Gain the child’s attention using songs, gestures, or prompts at the start of activities.
    • Demonstrate activities clearly, using simple language and emphasis on key words. Exaggerate actions to highlight important steps.
    • Model positive reactions like smiling, laughing, looking excited to motivate engagement.
    • Provide specific reinforcement throughout activities and transitions with praise, high-fives, or preferred items.
    • Use timed intervals like songs or visual timers to establish expectancies for activity length.
    • Balance structure and flexibility – adhere to routine but allow time for child to respond and participate.
    • Observe the child closely to identify what holds their attention and causes disengagement. Adjust materials accordingly.
    • Record data on skills like attention span, turn-taking, communication to monitor progress over time.

    Your energy and enthusiasm when presenting activities can encourage the child to pay attention and participate. Remain positive as you work to find activities that motivate each individual child.

    Utilising Your TA’s during Attention Autism Sessions.

    Whilst this can be done with a mainstream school classroom where you may not have teaching assistants Attention Autism is primarily used in special schools. Therefore it is likely you will have 1 or more TA’s supporting your sessions. It is essential they get fully involved to model expectations. No sorting out the next lesson etc. Something I would encourage you to consider is upskilling your TAs to run the sessions. This provides you with an opportunity to observe (whilst taking part) the pupils more closely. You can watch for individual reactions, engagement etc and amend your planning for the next session.

    Engaging Activities for Each Stage of Attention Autism

    There are a huge number of ideas on pinterest/instagram. Here are examples of fun, hands-on activities to implement for each Attention Autism stage:

    Stage 1: Bucket Activities

    • Hide balloons, bubbles, pinwheels, light-up toys, and switch activated toys inside a decorated bucket. Allow the child to choose one item at a time to observe.
    • Place sensory materials like slime, kinetic sand, water beads inside travel containers. Have the child feel the containers and guess what’s inside before revealing.
    • Drop pom poms individually through a wrapping paper tube.
    • Wind up mechanical windup toys and pop-up books for short intervals.
    • Light Up Spinners
    • These pop up cards are great and easy to store, they are available in so many styles to match your theme or topic.

    Stage 2: Attention Builders

    • Mix shaving cream and food colouring together on a tray to create colour swirls.
    • Assemble a 5-piece foam puzzle of a favourite character or object.
    • Knock down a tower of colourful blocks and rebuild it.
    • Plant seeds in soil and water them.
    • Make a pancakes sensory story by scooping fluffy slime with a spoon and plopping onto a pan.
    Attention Autism Example Activity

    Stage 3: Interactive Games

    • Ball Games: Roll a ball back and forth to each other. See how many times you can pass it. Kick or throw the ball into a basket or goal. Use an odd shaped or UV ball and light for extra motivation if needed.
    • Painting Games: Use squirt bottles or spray bottles filled with colored water to paint a mural together. Finger paint a collaborative picture on an easel.
    • Sensory Bin: Hide toys in a bin of kinetic sand, beans, or water beads. Take turns digging out objects.
    • Music Games: Pass around musical instruments taking turns making sounds. Freeze dance when the music stops.
    • Block Games: Build a block tower together, taking turns adding blocks. Knock it down!
    • Bubble Games: Blow bubbles and pop them or catch them on bubble wands. See who can blow the biggest bubble.
    • Box Games: Sit in cardboard boxes and push your box car around the room taking turns being the leader.
    • Feather Games: Tickle each other with feathers, take turns being the tickler. Blow feathers up in the air and let them fall.

    The key is to demonstrate an interactive activity with exaggerated, engaging actions. Then pause and allow the child to take a turn imitating your response. This teaches back-and-forth attention between you and the activity. Keep it fun and sensory-rich!

    Attention Autism 1:1 Satge 4 activities bou playing with stacking blocks

    Stage 4: Tabletop Task

    Here are some engaging activity ideas for Stage 4 of Attention Autism:

    Rainbow Sponge Painting

    • Materials: Kitchen sponge, liquid watercolours or food colouring, white paper
    • Demonstrate dipping the sponge into paint colours and then dabbing onto paper in a rainbow arc.
    • Child copies using their own sponge and paints.

    Paper Bag Puppets

    • Materials: Small paper bags, construction paper, googly eyes, pom poms, glue
    • Demonstrate making a simple puppet with colored paper features. Talk through character in a funny voice.
    • Child decorates their own paper bag puppet.

    Nature Collages

    • Materials: Leaves, flowers, sticks, rocks, glue, cardboard
    • Demonstrate arranging natural materials into a collage scene and gluing down.
    • Child makes their own nature collage with provided materials.

    Block Structures

    • Materials: Various building blocks
    • Demonstrate assembling blocks into simple structures like a bridge, house, tower.
    • Child copies the block structure using identical blocks.

    Texture Collages

    • Materials: Textured scraps like sandpaper, foil, burlap, tissue paper, glue, cardboard
    • Demonstrate arranging different textures into a collage and gluing down.
    • Child makes their own texture collage with provided materials.

    Pipe Cleaner Sculptures

    • Materials: Pipe cleaners in various colors, googly eyes
    • Demonstrate bending and twisting pipe cleaners into an animal or object shape. Add googly eyes.
    • Child sculpts their own pipe cleaner creation.

    Sensory Bottles

    • Materials: Empty plastic bottles, water, glitter, beads, sequins, hot glue
    • Demonstrate layering glitter, beads, sequins in a bottle with water and sealing the lid.
    • Child makes their own sensory bottle.

    Pattern Block Designs

    • Materials: Wooden pattern blocks in shapes like triangles, squares, hexagons
    • Demonstrate assembling pattern blocks into simple designs.
    • Child copies or creates their own designs from shapes.

    Playdough Mats

    • Materials: Playdough, plastic animal figurines, playdough mats
    • Demonstrate making indentations in playdough to create landscapes for animal figurines.
    • Child creates their own playdough scene.

    The focus is on arts, crafts, construction and sensory experiences that allow open-ended creation across various materials and themes. Keep it multi-step, hands-on and developmentally engaging!

    The key is to model an engaging, multisensory activity with a clear sequence of steps. Maintain interest by incorporating characters, preferred themes, or storylines. Keep language simple. Then observe as the child independently attends to completing their own version of the demonstrated activity. Provide specific praise for focusing, following directions, and task completion.

    Measuring Progress and Mastery

    It is important to collect data on the child’s developing skills in Attention Autism to track their progress over time and make adjustments as needed.

    Areas to monitor include:

    • Attention span – How long does the child remain focused on an activity? Time their engagement and set goals to increase duration.
    • Turn-taking – Does the child demonstrate appropriate waiting and responding during their turn? Note frequency and quality of turn-taking behaviors.
    • Communication – Observe if the child makes eye contact, gestures, vocalizations, or other communicative acts during activities. Tally occurrences.
    • Imitation – Does the child imitate the teacher’s actions with objects or motor behaviors? Percentage of prompts needed can indicate improvement.
    • Transitions – How does the child handle moving between activities and starting/stopping routines? Note ease of transitions.
    • Engagement – Record how consistently the child participates in the activities presented. Is their affect positive and focused?
    • Problem behaviors – Note any self-stimulation, aggression, elopement, or other disruptions that interfere with sessions. Monitoring these behaviors is key.

    Teachers can collect this observational data during each session and synthesize it weekly to determine progress on IEP goals. Quantitative data can be supplemented with qualitative observations on the child’s preferences, emerging skills, and challenges.

    Mastery at each Attention Autism stage can be defined by:

    • Stage 1: Child attends to novel items for 1-2 minutes with minimal prompting
    • Stage 2: Child engages with 5-10 minute activity demonstrations with visual/gestural prompting
    • Stage 3: Child appropriately participates in 5 turn-taking exchanges with fading prompts
    • Stage 4: Child focuses on tabletop task for 3+ minutes and transitions with gestures/visuals

    EHCP Target Examples Linked To Attention Autism

    Here are some examples of EHC plan targets related to joint attention skills that could be addressed through Attention Autism:

    • Child will maintain attention with an adult for 5 turns during a singing activity to develop joint attention.
    • Child will shift gaze between an object and adult 5 times when the adult points and labels the object.
    • Child will follow an adult’s pointed finger to 3 different objects in a book to establish joint focus.
    • Child will orient towards an adult when their name is called 3 times during group activities to promote shared attention.
    • Child will indicate a preference between 2 toy options using gestures, eye gaze, or vocalizations 4/5 opportunities.
    • Child will respond to 5 joint attention bids by looking towards objects the adult points to and comments on.
    • Child will initiate joint attention by pointing or showing an object to request play expansion from an adult 4 times per activity.
    • Child will engage in 3 instances of turn-taking by passing an object back and forth with an adult during a game routine.
    • Child will imitate a peer’s actions with the same toy material 3 times after observing the peer’s modeled play.
    • Child will respond to an adult’s pause and expectant look by engaging in a reciprocal turn of a social routine 5 times.
    • Child will engage in a repetitive social game like peek-a-boo across 5 different scenarios to practice joint engagement.
    • Child will make attend to using preferred interaction style, with 3 different communication partners across 2 settings to generalise joint attention skills.

    The key is to break down the complex skills of joint attention and engagement into small, functional targets that can be practiced through Attention Autism activities.

    Challenges Implementing Attention Autism

    Implementing Attention Autism may present some challenges especially in busy classrooms or those for whom the required behaviours for learning are still emerging:

    • Child loses interest in materials quickly – Change activities frequently and introduce novel items. Incorporate their preferred interests when possible.
    • Child has difficulty transitioning between activities – Use visual schedules, warnings, timers and structured routines to prepare them for transitions.
    • Child disengages or leaves during group activities – Position them near you, provide physical prompts initially, give frequent praise and incorporate high interest materials.
    • Child grabs materials before their turn – Keep items out of reach between turns, provide hand-over-hand guidance, and reinforce waiting through modeling and praise.
    • Child engages in self-stimulatory behaviors – Redirect gently with preferred items, modify activities to be more interactive, and shape participation through prompting.
    • Activities provoke negative reactions like anxiety or tantrums – Evaluate through observation to determine triggers. Adjust activities sensitively to child’s tolerances.
    • Child has trouble imitating motor behaviors – Provide hand-over-hand guidance initially and reinforce through modeling and praise. Simplify actions.
    • Child becomes overstimulated by sensory material – Limit quantities and exposure times for triggers. Notice signs of overstimulation like covering ears or avoiding stimuli.
    • Difficulty generalizing skills across settings activities – Practice target skills in different settings using multiple stimuli. Prompt generalization when opportunities arise.

    Pay close attention to the child’s individual responses to identify what engages their interest versus causes frustration or sensory overload. Adapt activities and environment as needed to maintain motivation and progress. One of the key things to avoid is having other adults walking around the classroom, visitors and phone calls/tannoys – all of these can destroy emerging attention.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: At what age is Attention Autism most appropriate?
    A: The program is designed for children ages 3-8 years when foundational attention and communication skills develop rapidly. However, the stages can be adapted for younger or older children with adjustments to match developmental level.

    Q: How long do Attention Autism sessions last?
    A: When first implementing the program, aim for 5-10 minute sessions 2-3 times per day. Gradually increase duration to 15-20 minutes as skills progress. Multiple brief sessions are most effective.

    Q: How can I involve parents in implementing Attention Autism?
    A: Provide parent training on the principles and activities. Encourage them to incorporate activities at home for consistency and more practice. Share data and progress updates.

    Q: Can Attention Autism be implemented in a group setting?
    A: Initially it works best in a 1:1 format but small groups of 2-3 children is possible as skills develop by taking turns and sharing materials.

    Q: What if a child shows no interest in the materials I present?
    A: Try a wide variety of activities and sensory stimuli until you find items that capture the child’s attention. Incorporate their preferred interests when possible and adapt activities to match their skills.

    Bonus: 50 Bucket Time Activity Ideas

    Here are 50 activity ideas for the Bucket Time stage of Attention Autism:

    1. Wind-up toys (cars, animals that walk/hop/swim)
    2. Pinwheels
    3. Music boxes
    4. Light-up bouncing balls
    5. Bubble guns
    6. Mini pop-up books
    7. Hand puppets
    8. Jack-in-the-box toys
    9. Stretchy/sticky stretch toys
    10. Colourful spinning tops
    11. Rainbow slinky
    12. Wrist/ankle rattles
    13. Plush characters with exciting features (light-up, crinkly, etc.)
    14. Musical instruments like mini piano, guitar, drum
    15. Noise-maker toys – squeakers, horns
    16. Fidget spinners
    17. Small popper toys
    18. Flashlights or glow sticks
    19. Feather boas or soft boa material
    20. Scarves, ribbons, or streamers
    21. Kazoos
    22. Finger puppets
    23. Mini slime or putty containers
    24. Tactile balls (sparkly, bumpy)
    25. Balloon animals
    26. Snap bracelets
    27. Color-changing items
    28. Mini lava lamps
    29. Spectrum wheel spinners
    30. Crystallized items
    31. Kinetic sand
    32. Mini origami animals
    33. Iridescent glitter shapes
    34. Rainbow prism beads
    35. Wikki Stix
    36. Mini snow globes
    37. Felt finger puppets
    38. Goldfish crackers
    39. Marble run tubes
    40. Small sensory bottles
    41. Cardboard tubes to blow through
    42. Blinking light balls
    43. Colorful pom poms
    44. Rain sticks
    45. Mini sea animal water toys
    46. Pin Art (pins pushed to make designs)
    47. Kaleidoscopes
    48. Small bubble blowers
    49. Mini sticky hand toys
    50. Fidget cubes

    The key is providing a wide variety of highly visual, tactile, auditory and novel items to capture and maintain a child’s attention during short, focused Bucket Time activities. Rotate materials to keep up novelty and interest over time.

    Attention Autism a comprehensive guide

    References and Further Reading

    Ames, C & Fletcher-Watson, S 2010, ‘A review of methods in the study of attention in autism‘, Developmental Review, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 52-73.

    Leekam, S.R., López, B., & Moore, C. (2000). Attention and joint attention in preschool children with autismDevelopmental psychology, 36 2, 261-73 .

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