Focus. The ability to pay attention to a particular item or task. Concentrating on a specific task.
In the classroom, focus is one of the most difficult things for students with autism to maintain. Much like a person with ADHD, people on the spectrum have a hard time staying on one task until it’s complete. When I give an assignment or try to teach a lesson, the kids in my class easily lose focus. They will start talking to themselves, jumping out of their seat to do something, laughing out loud, stomping their feet, and interrupt the entire class to talk about whatever it is they want to talk about at that moment. How can a teacher lessen or stop what seems like an uncontrollable behavior?
First, you have to understand why this particular behavior occurs. In all my experiences, 90% of the time lack of focus is due to a person perseverating. According to dictionary.com, perseverating is defined as “repeating something incessantly or redundantly.” I will take this one step further because if you have students with autism, I know you have seen this at some point, if not every day. In psychology, perseveration is defined as “the repetition of a particular response (such as a word, phrase, or gesture) regardless of the absence or cessation of a stimulus.” For instance, does your student ask the same exact question all day long? Does your student repeat a word or phrase that has nothing to do with anything you are learning about? Has your student focused in on one word or phrase that you said then repeated that throughout the day and possibly week or month or year? By no means is this an exhaustive list but these are some examples of perseveration. Why do people with autism experience this? Psychology suggests it’s a brain issue. Therefore, perseverating is not something a person on the spectrum can stop doing simply because someone tells him to stop. That being said, it can be minimized for short periods of time.
The number one thing to know is ignoring the behavior in this instance will only increase the behavior. You must acknowledge the behavior directly then redirect the student back to task. For example, when I’m giving directions and my student shouts out “Girls like me” then laughs loudly, I immediately say “I understand you want to talk and it’s important to you. Right now I need you to focus on what I’m saying so we can get our work started.” Then I go right back to giving directions. The number two thing you need to know is you have to validate that student when work is complete. After our work is complete, I validate my student’s thoughts by talking to them about whatever they are perseverating about at that time. This will take time to work. It takes time for the students to understand that they will get a chance to talk after their work is finished but if you are consistent, most students figure it out fairly quickly.
As an added incentive for the student, use a timer. If the student is unfamiliar with timers, explain or show them how they work. Set the timer for the amount of time you want the student to work and stick to it. As soon as the timer goes off, talk to the student about what they want. And you can even use the same timer to limit the amount of time the student is off task.
I am by no means saying this will solve all your problems. And I can’t to say it will help every interruption by your ASD kids. All I can say is this is what I have done for the last 4 years with multiple students and it has worked most of the time. So why not give it a try? I mean the worst that can happen is you have one more thing to mark off your list that didn’t work. And the best that can happen is you found a way to stop interruptions in your classroom.
Do you have something you do in your class that helps your students keep focused? If so, please share!