How to Teach an Autistic Child to Focus on Me and What I'm Saying

Updated on January 10, 2011
M.P. asks from Portland, OR
10 answers

My grandson has been diagnosed with a speech learning disorder and is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder continuum. He is extremely high energy and I frequently have difficulty getting him to focus long enough to direct him or to get information from him. I hold onto his shoulders and repeatedly ask him to look at me but he often squirms and keeps looking away. Sometimes, but rarely, it works to hold him on my lap while I talk to him. It seems lately that I just let him leave rather than to continue to try to hold his attention. Does anyone, who has had experience with autistic behavior, have any suggestions for how I can hold his attention for long enough to ask him to direct his actions or to get information from him?

Additions: I ask for eye contact because this is what his teachers have modeled for me and it's the only thing that sometimes works. Yes, he sometimes seems uncomfortable with it but at other times seems comfortable. He only responds to his name about half the time and then usually only after I've said it several times. It's as if he doesn't hear me. I know selective hearing is usual at this age. :) The difficulty with following him in his activity in order to get his attention reminds me of another action that at times causes me concern.

He has imaginary friends and when he's focused on talking with them it's next to impossible to get his attention in any way other than to stop and hold him. He doesn't seem to mind being stopped but it does seem that this is when I have the most difficulty communicating with him. He wants to get back to his friends. His talk is rapid when he's with his imaginary friends and basically something that I cannot understand tho his sister can sometimes. He passes over sounds but the words do sound like actual words. I just can't understand because they are missing major sounds. Because he won't talk or even listen when I try to talk about his friends I sometimes have the sense that they are real to him. When I stop him he often waves towards them and says, "wait a minute." He will do what I ask if I get him started in that direction. Otherwise it's as if I hadn't spoken. He goes back to playing with his friends.

When we're in the store I have to constantly hold onto him to keep him from running off to explore. Good to explore but not to leave the area. His sister is still that way at times but when I go get her now and when she was 4,5,6 she knew she was to stay with me but chose to not do so. She looks(ed) chagrined when I "rounded her up." It seems that Chase is unaware that he's not doing as told. Is this an autistic characteristic? I'm experienced with children pushing the boundaries and testing the limits but this seems different. It feels like he's clueless most of the time but not all of the time.

I've seen him do the same thing at school. I watched an aide be unable to get him to settle down to listen to him read a story. Chase was up and running around, would stop when the aid grabbed him, sit for a minute or two and was up and running around again, over and over. My way to handle this, when I'm able, is to continue to hold him. He usually complies when I do but then I'm unable to do anything else. The aide was also reading to 2 other children and could not constantly focus on Chase. The other children stayed focused which surprised me.

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So What Happened?

I've received helpful information. I am going to look at/read the recommended sites/books. I've tried briefly to learn sign language and will work on it more seriously. I can see how that could help. Yes, this is an awesome site with awesome women! I've added more to my post after reading the messages hoping that with a couple of specific instances someone might have a specific tool to try. Perhaps the only thing I can do is to continue to hold onto his hand while he follows my directions? His mother has more control. I have more difficulty because he's with me for only short periods of time. We don't have a routine.

More Answers



answers from Portland on

I sometimes interact with a seriously autistic boy in my religious community, and watch closely how his parents work with him. You're on the right track with the holding. I'm sure you also preface your requests by calling his name.

The only other way I've found to (sometimes) establish a connection is to enter into his activity or stim for a few seconds. Not quick or easy, because it takes some study to figure out what his attention is going to at a given moment. It's pretty cool when it works, though. There's the actual possiblity of making a request or expressing affection for maybe a minute. His parents are always grateful for any other adults making the attempt to bridge the chasm into this young boy's isolation.

As you probably know, many kids on the autism spectrum have difficulty looking others in the face, because they don't understand facial expressions and so are confused by them. And many don't like certain kinds of touch. A light touch or soft stroke may be strongly irritating, even if a strong hug works well for them.

I'm so sorry to hear you and your grandson are facing this challenge, M.. I've noticed for awhile now that you give yourself generously to your family. It must be wearing, sometimes. I hope it's also deeply rewarding. I think your grandchildren are lucky to have you as their grandmother.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Spokane on

Hi M. - I so totally get what you are talking about in trying to get kids with language/speech issues as well as additional disability areas to communicate. I talked with another mom from my support group for additional ideas & we both agreed on a few suggestions.

For his diagnosis...was it done through a school or did a doctor/specialist do the diagnosis? Many times if it was done through the school district they dont help parents understand the full scope of a child disability or learning disorders. So if it was via the school see if your medical coverage will cover getting evaluated by a pediatric developmental specialist. If you are only working with the school's SLP for the language issues then maybe also see about an outside SLP/OT that can spend time with you building a plan to help with the needed communication & behavior. Some kids on the Autism spectrum communicate very different (some need picture cards as my friend's daughter needs or sign language, etc). See if in your area there is an Autism center/group. If so, tap into them for specifics for specialist in your area as well as the most up to date techniques on working with kids with special needs.

I remember when my youngest his communication was very hard to deal with. We worked with his SLP and helped him to learn sign language & immediately we started to notice a change with him. He still struggles with his speech/language but he is learning more techniques that work for him to get what he wants/needs across in a safe manner. Have to run, will drop you a note later when I can go through the books I have. God Bless

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

My son doesn't have Autism, but does have Sensory Integration Disorder, which children with Autism usually have along with it. Something you could try that might help is to be in a room that is less distracting...i.e. noise, lights, people. This seems to help my son focus SO much better. Hope this helps. :D

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Eugene on

Hi M.~
I just saw this post and thought I might be able to add some help to you. My daughter has autism and so I do have first hand expirence.
What helps with children on the spectrum is let them guide you to what is in their world. If he likes trains then focus on trains. Talk to him about whatever it is that he likes. Kids with autism also might have a very hard time focusing because of all the other elements that could be going on. Like noises, or lights or sounds. I have read that a lot of them actually can hear the buzzing sounds of floresent lighting. They often times have a lot of sensory issues that might be hard to filter out for them. Their brains think so differently than a typical person, so learning how they think is hard and takes time to see life thru their eyes, but once you do, it can really help. For instance, my daughter (6) will often hit her brother (3) hard for what appears to be no reason. However, she has a reason, but we have to figure it out. Just today he fell asleep on the sofa and she went over and totally clobbered him.. Of course I am always wanting to be right on top of it, but was a few steps away. In her head you only sleep in a bed, not on the sofa... I could babble forever, but I won't. LOL I just bought a book that is sooooooooooooo helpful. It is called "No More Meltdowns" by Jed Baker..
Our kiddos are AMAZING. They are so smart and are always taking things in even if you think they are tuning you out..Feel free to email me if you like. I really enjoy talking to people who also understand!

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answers from Seattle on

Hi M., I personally don't know anything about autistic children but I do know that Jenny Mccarthy wrote an amazing book about autistic children, on how to deal with and bring them out of the autistic disorder, it's worth a try, good luck, Jenny son is no longer autistic due to all her research and life style change for her son.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

Try not to put each autistic child into a box. What works to calm and focus one child will not necessarily work for another. It may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for your grandson.
Trying to keep eye contact will most likely make the child uncomfortable. You will need to let go of some beliefs in regards to "normal" communication. If your grandchild is truly autistic, he will not be reading normal social cues and eye contact is very difficult to maintain.
As a mother of an autistic child, I find Jenny McCarthy offensive. Autism is a neorological disorder. It isn't "cured." There are many things one can do to optimize the function of the child but autism doesn't go away. I give her credit on the things she has accomplished with her own child but implying that she knows it all for every child is wrong.

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answers from Seattle on

Just wanted to mention not to forget

<laughing> Oy, I'm actually posting this twice in one day, forgive me:

Yahoo Groups been an INVALUABLE tool for working with my 2e son, even though we share the same Dx. I think overall, I'm on 10 or 11 boards, it's a killer resource. You have to set up a yahoo ID (free) to join a group, but you can peruse their "about us" front page without one, but most of them the message board is you have to join the group to read. In the "group search" you can plug in autism, or parenting autism, or even autism and your cityname and find local stuff. The bottom of the about us page has a little graph that shows how many messages per month they have, so you can get a general idea of how active they are before you join one.

I just "found" them about 6 months ago, so if you're already familiar, sorry for overloading on the detail!

Most of my groups have to deal with adhd, secular homeschooling, & 2e. I hear a lot about coping with/ teaching to autistic kids on the 2e boards... but rather than pass on info I figured it would be better to send you to the horse's mouth.

Big Hugs!!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I agree with the pp in saying don't expect a child with autism to give you eye contact. It's not a sign that he is not paying attention. It is often very uncomfortable for these children.

As another mother with a child that has autism, I 100% disagree about Jenny Macarthy. She has never once said that you can "cure" autism. She refers to it as recovery and the child is always in recovery if they are showing signs of getting better. She does come from the persective of having a lot of money and being able to pay for a lot of things that we could never imagine being able to afford, but I think her books play more to the affect this has on the mother and loved ones and the emotional side of things.

If you really want to learn about ASD, you can check out It is a wonderful website. A really amazing book is 10 things every child with autism wants you to know.

Good luck and the best advice I can give is to throw out all you think you know about engaging a child and learn what works for him!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Denver on

I know this is an old post, but I often read posts like this and wonder if it isn't normal to occasionally have to "hold" one's children to calm them (and I don't mean cuddle, I mean restrain in a loving way).

I have had to do this with ALL THREE of my boys at some point...they just would get ramped up (and sometimes angry) and couldn't come back down. I don't know what the baby's deal is right now, but he sometimes will NOT sleep for anyone but me and I think it's because I am willing to hold him firmly and rock him while he screams and smacks me.

Really...this isn't....normal?????


answers from Hartford on

As every autistic child is different, so is every caretaker's response. I forced eye contact in my son because it is necessary to function in our world. The younger you start these things, the easier it will be when the child gets older. So, I would keep insisting on keeping the eye contact even if it is uncomfortable. Every child (typical and atypical) learns acceptable social behavior and autism should not be considered a pass to avoid these things, especially if the child is capable. Anyway, it seems to me that Chase may have sensory issues. You could try brushing techniques to encourage calm. Look up 'sensory diets' and you will find lots of suggestions. I would also recommend the book 'Overcoming Autism' if the child is on the spectrum. This book is loaded with good advice and strategies from a mom of an autistic child and a clinician. It is a little biased toward early intervention strategies, but I think it is still worth taking a look at it.
Good luck,

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