Autism Series #2: Why Does My Child Seem to Not Pay Attention to Me?


1. notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.
2. the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.

(Definitions from Oxford Languages)

If your child has trouble “paying attention,” it might lead to some problems.

If a child is not doing what he or she is told, it may look like the child is choosing to deliberately misbehave. When children do not follow instructions, parents often become frustrated, thinking that the child is not listening to them.

With ADD, ADHD, ASD, and other neurodiverse ways of thinking, “paying attention,” like many other cognitive processes, works differently.

The child who has a brain wired in this manner is often not ignoring you. That child simply stores memory items differently, and sometimes they can be difficult to retrieve.

For example, if someone points at you and says “fagia sakafu,” you will most likely not initially understand what is meant. After all, “fagia sakafu” is not a phrase most of us use in our everyday language. You may think about it for a minute, decide it doesn’t mean anything, and then go about your business.

But – if you spoke Swahili, you would understand that “fagia sakafu” means “sweep the floor.”

So, how does learning Swahili help you understand your neurodiverse child?

When you were a child, your eyes watched someone using a broom to sweep the floor.

You watched the person move a stick with some sort of straw or fiber attached to one end across the thing that you walk on, gathering dust, dirt, etc. Then you watched it being gathered into a flat thing with a handle on it, using the movement of what you later learned was called a broom. Then you saw the dirt being emptied from the flat thing that you later learned was called a dustpan into a bag or trash can.

You watched this process happen over and over until the entire surface had been touched by this rhythmic movement of a pole with some sort of straws or hairs tied to the bottom, gathering dirt and disposing of it.

You were told that this is “sweeping the floor.”

One hemisphere in your brain recorded the appearance of the tools being used, noted how they were used, and the result of their use. The other half of your brain encoded the symbols that spelled “sweeping the floor.”

The two halves of your brain communicated with each other, producing an understanding that the ritual you just witnessed is called “sweeping the floor,” and that if someone asks you to sweep the floor, it means you get the stick with the straws on it and gather the dust from the thing you walk on by using this stick, get the dust gathered into a receptacle and then throw it out.

Sounds complicated? It IS.

But you were so young when you learned this that you probably don’t remember all the steps you went through to learn it.

However, a child with different neurocognitive wiring does not perceive this ritual in the same way you do.

Children who see the world through diverse eyes often do not connect the various actions together.

They may see the stick with the straws and learn that you call it a broom, but putting together the many actions required to complete the task of sweeping the floor does not flow together the way they do for you.

A broom looks a lot like a shovel, or a baton, or a bat. In your memory, discrete pictures are connected to specific words. THIS is a BROOM.

But, with the child who has cognitive processing differences, THIS may not have the word BROOM attached in a place where they can find it. The child searches through the file drawers of memory, searching for something that looks like THIS, and comes up with the word BAT. Then that child searches further through those drawers and comes up with the concept that you hit things with a BAT.

So – the broom gets swung through the air, the lamp falls, and the parent has a meltdown.

How in the world does this happen? Let’s talk about memory.

For some of us, memory is a well-organized file cabinet where drawers are labeled and file folders contain exactly what they are supposed to contain.

For others, memory is a disaster.

Piles of memories are jumbled higgledy-piggledy with no sense of what goes where. THAT is how the memory of an ADD/ADHD/ASD child works. Stuff is everywhere.

If you are trying to locate a concept in the memory structured like the picture on the left, easy peasy. If you are looking for that concept in the memory pictured on the right, well, it is going to take some time.

So – the child with neurodiverse ways of thinking is not simply refusing to pay attention. That child simply needs more data to help them locate the memory they are looking for.

How do you get your child to pay attention? That is the topic of the next article.