Autism and Attention-Seeking Behaviors: What You Can Do to Stop the Cycle

Autism and Attention-Seeking Behaviors: What You Can Do to Stop the Cycle

Attention-seeking behaviors are common in children and adults with autism, which shouldn't be surprising, considering that many children without autism exhibit these types of behaviors as well. Attention-seeking behaviors range from silly to defiant to violent at times. And in a person with autism, negative attention-seeking behaviors can be particularly problematic and difficult to stop.

Attention-seeking behaviors aren't necessarily a bad thing at their core. All humans are social beings and crave attention, so when we're not getting enough attention, we naturally change our behavior in an attempt to get more of it. Another reason a person might engage in an attention-seeking behavior is as a distraction to put off doing something they dislike, such as bathtime or bedtime. While the presence of attention-seeking behaviors doesn't mean that the parents, teachers, or other caregivers are doing anything wrong, it may be a sign that something needs to change.

How do I know if it's an attention-seeking behavior?

Not sure if a misbehavior is an attention-seeking behavior? Here are some clues. If the person looks directly at you while misbehaving or purposely gets your attention before engaging in the activity, it is probably an attention-seeking behavior. They may also tell you about what they are going to do or have done if you haven't seen it, or they may repeat the behavior if it doesn't elicit a response the first time. It is most likely an attention-seeking behavior if it is obvious that the person knows they are misbehaving and wants you to know it as well.

What can I do to discourage attention-seeking behaviors?

As we discussed, there is a variety of reasons why a person with autism may display negative attention-seeking behavior. He or she may be lacking proper attention, be attempting to put off doing something they dislike, or have another reason entirely. Make sure that the child is getting everything they need, physically and emotionally, before you attempt to stop the behavior by other means.

Once you're past that, one of the best go-to responses to an attention-seeking behavior is to ignore the behavior. Rewarding a negative attention-seeking behavior with attention (even if it's negative attention) lets the person know that this kind of behavior will elicit a response and is, therefore, something worth repeating. By not rewarding the behavior with any kind of attention, you're sending the message that the behavior isn't worth repeating because it will not get a response.

It's important to remember that you're not ignoring your child or the person you're caring for—you're simply ignoring the bad behavior. Attention is important to all human beings and should be given whenever appropriate—just not while an attention-seeking behavior is occurring.

Click "next" below to find out what to do if the attention-seeking behavior is endangering someone (and more).

What if the behavior is endangering someone?

Sadly, there are times when ignoring the behavior is not the way to go, particularly when the person is threatening to hurt themselves or others, or if whatever behavior they've chosen to engage in could lead to harm for them or someone else. In these cases, it's still a good idea to try not to give the behavior too much attention and have as little contact with the situation as possible. But do what you need to do to ensure everyone in the situation remains safe. Try to stop the behavior without making eye-contact or displaying any strong emotion.

What else can I do to encourage a change in behavior?

When the person you're caring for is not in the middle of an attention-seeking episode, you have some options about what you can do to reinforce good behavior or discourage bad behavior. One of those options is to reward good choices the person makes with the attention they crave. If the child (or adult) makes a good behavior decision or goes for a certain period of time without engaging in the negative behavior, he or she should be rewarded.

Try telling the person that if they go for five minutes (or one minute or 10 minutes or whatever works) without doing the behavior you're trying to stop, you'll reward them—whether it be with a treat or an activity they enjoy or a sticker or something else entirely. Make sure the child (or adult) knows how long he or she needs to avoid bad behavior and what they will get as a reward.

It may also help to simply get the person's mind off their negative behavior pattern and help them focus on something else. Experiment with a new game or activity or a tried-and-true one you know they enjoy. Just make sure you're not using this fun activity as a reward for negative behavior. This strategy is particularly useful if you're able to predict when the person is likely to begin acting up. Engage the person in a distracting and fun activity just before he or she is likely to begin displaying negative attention-seeking behaviors.

Do you have another method or tip for teaching a child to stop engaging in negative attention-seeking behaviors? We'd love to hear about it in the comments, and other parents, teachers, and caregivers may benefit from your thoughts!

Elizabeth Morey

Elizabeth Morey graduated summa cum laude from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, where she dual majored in English Literature and Spanish with minors in Writing and Business Administration. She was a member of the school's Insignis Honors Society and the president of the literary honors society Lambda Iota Tau.

Some of Elizabeth's special interests include Spanish and English linguistics, modern grammar and spelling, and journalism. She has been writing professionally for more than five years and specializes in health topics such as breast cancer, autism, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease. Apart from her work at GreaterGood, she has also written art and culture articles for the Grand Rapids Magazine.

Elizabeth has lived in the beautiful Great Lakes State for most of her life but also loves to travel. She currently resides a short drive away from the dazzling shores of Lake Michigan with her beloved husband.

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