By Kelley Yost Abrams, PhD

About the Author: Dr. Yost Abrams received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow with ZERO TO THREE. She is a parenting expert and early childhood researcher. Dr. Abrams specializes in parent-child attachment relationships, social-emotional development, and infant mental health.

Here's How to Identify (And React) to Attention Seeking Behaviors in Autism

The desire to belong is an integral part of human nature. In fact, in a recent University of California, Los Angeles study, researchers discovered that the reward centers of our brains respond just as strongly to social rewards as to money. Psychology Today goes on to say that being deprived of social interaction can “affect our brains in similar ways as physical injuries would”.

So it’s no surprise that when we feel detached, we can sometimes go to great lengths to connect with – or get attention from – those in our lives. This reaction is very normal and there’s nothing wrong with occasional attention-seeking in children or adults. But for those with neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically children with autism, attention-seeking behaviors can be disruptive. 

What Is Attention-Seeking Behavior?

As we mentioned, attention-seeking, in children and adults, is normal. Humans are social by nature and crave attention. Any actions and behaviors we participate in where the desired outcome is to get the attention of another person are considered attention-seeking behaviors.

Just as it may be difficult to identify the cause of these behaviors in ourselves, it can be even more challenging to identify them in a child. Young children, especially those under the age of 5, do not yet have the impulse control or cognitive skills to intentionally misbehave. This often leads parents and adults to mischaracterize a child’s attempt to connect as “naughty” behavior. Instead, try identifying some of the actions your child is taking to connect with you. If the motivation of the behavior is to seek attention a child will often:

  • They will direct the attention-seeking behavior towards someone.
  • Make full eye-contact or draw attention to something they’ve done “wrong” if the parent hasn’t noticed.
  • And they will preemptively announce that they are going to do “x” if they do not get “y”.

Every child is unique and will need the help from an adult or a parent to effectively convey what they need.

An Important Note

Before we examine this from the lens of autism, it’s important to note that attention-seeking is not unhealthy. We all engage in some level of attention-seeking when we post on social media, brag about accomplishments, or act dramatically.

For many of us, when we take attention-seeking too far, we can recognize it, correct our behavior, and react in a more appropriate way that doesn’t endanger us or those around us. However, for children and adults with autism, who also often experience mental health challenges, attention-seeking behaviors have the potential to put them at risk.

Learning how to recognize these behaviors, and when to intervene, will help children with autism cope and properly respond to negative emotions. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, you may want to consider taking your child through the autism screening process or reach out to Jigsaw for an initial, free conversation.

How Does Attention-Seeking Manifest in Autism?

Children with autism often have other mental health and intellectual challenges. According to the National Autistic Society, it may be common for nearly 40-50% of people with an autism diagnosis to also be diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their lives. This also applies to ADHD, as nearly “half of individuals diagnosed with ASD also have signs of ADHD”. This can cause attention-seeking to manifest a little bit differently in children with autism than children who are not diagnosed with ASD.

Sensory Examples of Attention-Seeking

While it’s true that parents can identify attention-seeking with a few slight clues like eye contact and directness, children with autism may seek attention in a different manner altogether. For instance, children with autism and ADHD symptoms may have reactions that are more sensory-based, like hyperactivity:

  • Bouncing, jumping, or dancing excessively
  • Being loud and disruptive
  • Whining

On the other hand, children with autism who are prone to anxiety might run away or bolt in an uncomfortable situation. Other attention-seeking behavior examples include:

  • Throwing a tantrum
  • Crying or fake crying
  • Acting like a task is too difficult

And in extreme cases, attention-seeking behavior examples can even include self-harm outbursts like hair pulling, thrashing, or a child hitting themselves repeatedly. They can also direct this behavior at others, resulting in violence like kicking and biting. And, in these cases, this is when thoughtful intervention is particularly important for parents and caretakers.

How to Effectively Respond to a Child Seeking Attention

If you suspect your child is seeking attention, there are some methods you can use to minimize the negative effects of those behaviors and teach your child better emotion mitigation.

Method #1: Ignore the Behavior—Never the Child

Ignoring your child’s attention-seeking behaviors can be one of the most difficult things to do. Especially if your child throws physical tantrums, kicks, and screams. In this case, if your child starts to self-harm or harm others, you should remove the child from the environment and into safety without reprimand.

Conversely, if your child’s attention-seeking behaviors include being loud and disruptive, it is possible to ignore the behavior—never the child—and instead convey a more appropriate way to get your attention. It is important to try to understand the need your child is expressing with their behavior. You can validate and empathize with the need for more connection and attention from you. Then you can move on to calmly but firmly explaining to your child how they can ask for your attention in a polite and productive manner. This new behavior will likely look like using their “indoor voice” and respecting others’ personal space.

Method #2: Learn Your Child’s Triggers & Patterns

Another way to proactively mitigate autism attention-seeking behaviors is to learn your child’s particular triggers and patterns. For instance, if you notice your child uses negative attention-seeking to get their way at a certain time of day, parents should create a calming routine, leading up to that time, and avoid the stimuli that caused the negative behavior in the past. A couple examples of activities impacting behavior include watching an exciting show before bed and eating sugar in the morning. By understanding your child’s patterns and triggers and acting accordingly, your child’s routine is centered around positivity.

Method #3: Effectively Using a Distraction

We understand that lives are complicated and you may not always be able to get out in front of a child’s triggers. That’s why it’s important to develop strategies that will help diminish negative attention-seeking in the moment. Distracting your child – or redirecting their attention – can be a very effective way to help them navigate a negative emotion.

However, it’s important that the distraction doesn’t resemble a reward because this can be misinterpreted as giving in to the behavior or praising your child. It’s best to pick a neutral distraction tool like calming sounds, something soft to the touch, or something pleasing to look at that can ground the child and reinforce that you are there to support them.

Method #4: Schedule Structured Time With Your Child

Attention-seeking is your child’s attempt to connect with you. Any of the methods you chose to help your child work through their emotions needs to be reinforced with plenty of quality time and positive reinforcement.

Spending quality time with your child is the best, long-term strategy for strengthening your bond. Let your child know how important they are to you by listening intently, putting down your phone and making eye contact when they speak or share their ideas. Create family rituals together like eating dinner or preparing lunches in the morning for school, and enrich them with positive reinforcement frequently.

In addition to these methods, it’s also important for children to get the support they need from a professional. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) and working with a therapist who you and your child trust will also help you develop skills to effectively work through dysfunctional attention-seeking and reward your child for all the wonderful things they do.