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ASD Education: Why It’s Important to Focus on Attention Span

October 5, 2023

It’s no secret that education for children with autism needs to improve.

Globally, we’ve made progress in the last few decades. As the understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased, so too has the appreciation of how it impacts education. And there is now a clear drive from educational institutions, governments, and researchers alike to identify further ways to support children with ASD as they complete their schooling.

ASD Education: Why It's Important to Focus on Attention Span

Yet, we still have a long way to go.

The World Health Organization estimates 1 in 160 children worldwide has ASD, and access to services and support for people with ASD is inadequate. The 2017 report Autism and Education in England, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism and The National Autistic Society, found that fewer than half of children and young people on the autism spectrum say they are happy at school, and five in ten say that their teachers do not know how to support them. The same report revealed that seven in ten parents said having a teacher who understands autism would improve schooling for their children.

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My colleagues and I in Qatar are working on an exciting research project that dives deep into the issue of attention spans of those with ASD, and we have uncovered findings that we hope will go a long way to positively tackling this issue globally. Attention spans lie at the heart of understanding ASD and how those living with it learn. The ability to pay attention directly influences how an individual acquires skills.

Children with ASD typically have shorter attention spans than other children, meaning traditional teaching methods can be ill-suited to their needs. When a child with ASD can’t pay attention, he/she can easily become bored and frustrated. The immediate results of this can be either poor or no assimilation of the learning content in a lesson. But the deeper impacts can be more serious and can ultimately lead to the child refusing to learn in subsequent sessions.

By contrast, recognizing the significance of a child’s attention span and tailoring teaching methods to this can make a world of difference to an autistic child’s education. With the right approach, children can remain engaged in content, improving academic progress significantly, and behavior issues greatly minimized.

The necessary adaptations to teaching methods to cater to shorter attention spans can be as simple as supporting them with sensory stimulations as required or identifying the right time to take a break.

Unlocking recognition of when a child is paying attention and when they are not is fundamental to uncovering the behavioral changes needed to improve education methods. This is central to our research project.

With colleagues from Texas A&M University in Qatar, we have developed a mixed reality test to monitor children’s attention. While taking the test—which uses a 3D monitor and challenges children to identify certain letters—the participants are observed via a webcam.

Correlating test results with analysis of the footage, we have identified four facial expressions that indicate when a subject is paying attention: brow raise, lip suck, lip press, and mouth open.

We’re now implementing the data into an algorithm to develop a model that teachers will be able to use to inform their teaching practices. The model will show when children with ASD best pay attention, allowing teachers to adapt the duration and nature of their lesson’s activities accordingly.

Becoming more aware of attention spans is not only useful for teachers. We see this project, and its wider outcomes as a vehicle for children with ASD to discover their own learning preferences, strengths, and limits.

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Enabling children to identify what works for them and understand how long they can successfully concentrate on a topic for is vital to improving their ability to learn independently.

Sound can be very useful in helping with this. Learning applications that can recognize when a child is not paying attention can be developed with a ‘beep’ sound or voice note integrated within, which can be used to alert the child of his/her inattention to help refocus on the required learning content or task.

The more attention children pay to the learning material, the more they benefit from it, and such reminders ultimately improve the learning experience. While we are currently focusing on the improvements that can be made in classrooms, the importance of attention spans for people of all ages with ASD can’t be underestimated.

Implementing changes based on attention spans and encouraging children with ASD to learn more independently at the education level will also help them to achieve a more natural progression into the world of work in later life. Those with a good understanding of their attention span will be able to identify the type of content that best sustains their attention, which is just as important in a professional capacity as in an academic context.

Likewise, understanding attention spans can be useful for anyone spending time or working with someone with ASD.

We hope to see awareness of this becoming increasingly integrated into business practices so that better working environments are established for those living with autism. Learning doesn’t stop at school, and we strive to discover new ways to teach and engage people with ASD, providing them the same opportunities for continued development as others can experience.

This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow

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