Autism Series #3: How to Get Your Child to “Makini”

Yep, another Swahili word. Can you guess what it means? Yeah- it means pay attention. I guess parents all over the world deal with this.

So, how do you get your neurodiverse child to pay attention? How do you help that child file things in memory in such a way that it can be retrieved?

STEP ONE: Be sure you have eye contact!

  1. Call your child’s name.
  2. Place an object that your child likes in your child’s line of sight and then move it toward your eyes.
  3. You child will eventually start to look toward your face when you call the name.

This is probably going to take several repetitions, and even once you think you have it mastered, you will find that out of nowhere the “A TEN SHUN” monster raises its ugly head and you have to do the training all over again.

STEP TWO: Use play.

  1. Choose an activity your child likes. If your child likes to roll or throw a ball, do this together. Rolling or throwing a ball together promotes attention and shared attention.
  2. Talk with your child while playing the game with the ball.
  3. String beads. Use large beads your child can handle. Remember, fine motor coordination isn’t too good at early ages. String them onto a leather or string big enough to do the task easily. String a bead onto the string. Take the bead off and then hand it to your child and let the child play with the bead. It may or may not get on the string the first few times. Be patient. Think about learning Swahili.
  4. Put a puzzle together. Put all of the puzzle together except for the last piece. Hand your child the last piece and help put it in. Gradually increase the number of pieces your child puts in the puzzle until you are doing the whole puzzle together. Wooden puzzles with large pieces work best. The kind that have formed places to put the pieces in work well, and those that make sounds when you put the piece in the right slot are absolute magic.
  5. Use short activities. A rule of thumb is one minute of attention for each year of age. So, if you are dealing with a two year old, you can’t expect the game to go on longer than two minutes before the child begins to become bored and looks at other things.
  6. Use a timer. Set a timer for the length of time you want to engage in the activity. Remember, one minute for each year of age. When the timer goes off, switch tasks. You are teaching your child that when the timer goes off, it is time to do something different. This will come in really handy later.
  7. Get rid of distractions before you start. Turn off the television, radio, computer, etc. Those things are far more entertaining than you are, and your child will definitely pay more attention to those electronics than to you.

STEP THREE: Give understandable instructions.

Remember the article about memory? Your memory is a well-organized file cabinet with things in a row. Your child’s memory is a mess of data floating in space. The fewer words you use, the more likely your child is to understand.

For example, you could say,

  • “bead on string” instead of “put the bead on the string like this.”
  • “roll ball” instead of “roll the ball to me.”
  • “match shapes” instead of “put that piece here and see if it matches.”

The fewer words the better. It helps your child focus on the important aspects of what you are saying, limits confusion and improves their ability to retrieve.

STEP FOUR: Talk while you play.

  1. Copy what your child is doing. Children love mimic games. Your child will probably look to see if you copy them the next time they do something.
  2. Repeat what your child says, even if it is just a sound. This develops the concept that ongoing interactions happen. When your child makes a sound or says a word, repeat it back to your child.
  3. Talk as you and your child are playing. When you talk about what your child is doing, ask questions and give suggestions. This can encourage your child to keep focused for longer. But use short two or three word sentences. Remember, LESS IS MORE.

STEP FIVE: Model behavior.

Model what you want your child to do. For example:

  • When stringing beads, string one yourself. Then, gently take your child’s hand and guide it to put a bead on a string. Use your words – say “BEAD ON STRING.”
  • When rolling a ball, guide your child in rolling the ball and say “ROLL BALL.”
  • Help your child make the connection between the strange sounds you are making and the thing you are doing.

STEP SIX: Be structured.

Remember that timer mentioned earlier? It can be an absolute God-send later.

  1. Set the timer for the interval you choose.When it goes off, change activities. You can use the timer to signal the end of electronics time, time to brush teeth, time to get ready for school, time to go to bed, and any number of things. The timer is the one to tell the child that it is time to do something. This takes you out of the firing line, and teaches your child to be responsible for his or herself. Timers are pure magic!
  2. If your child understands “if, then” statements, you can use these to show that there is an end to the activity and that your child can move on to something new. Use clear, simple language. For example, you might say, “First shapes, then bubbles.”
  3. If your child doesn’t yet understand “if, then” statements, you could start with two favorite activities so that your child doesn’t get upset when you change activities. For example, “first bubbles, then train.” This will help your child to focus more on what you’re saying, rather than being upset. It’s best if the first activity is quick and easy to complete quickly. Once your child has completed it, give them lots of praise. For example, “All finished, well done! Now train.”