“Look At Me!”: Gaining Attention

Photo source: www.johnrobison.com

*Recommended Reading: The Off Task Learner

For anyone providing ABA instruction to a child (teacher, parent, therapist) knowing how to get, and then keep, learner attention will be critical. Just because you start a session with a compliant and attentive child does not mean the session will end that way.  Much of ABA instruction can involve quickly delivering specific demands, and if the child is not properly attending then it can be difficult to truly assess learning.

Even outside of an ABA therapy session, getting and keeping the attention of a child with Autism can be challenging. I find that when I observe non-ABA professionals interacting with kiddos with Autism, they end up “throwing away” lots of demands. They may give a demand to a child who is engrossed in a DVD, has his back turned, or is engaging in vocal stereotypy. When this happens, I really can’t blame the child for not complying with the demand. How can the child comply with a demand to “Come eat dinner” when all he heard was “-inner”?

What most adults determine to be indicators of paying attention (sustained eye contact, immediate responding) can actually be pretty difficult behaviors for a child with Autism. Self-stimulatory behaviors can make paying attention difficult, as can auditory processing issues. For example, if I am at a kids play center with a client and I am trying to give him a demand, I may have to compete with the sounds of kids laughing and screaming, the whoosh of the air conditioner, and the dings coming from a nearby video game. My client might have difficulty tuning all of that out to focus on what I am saying.  

Socialization deficits can also make paying attention difficult for a child with Autism. Looking directly into my eyes may be very aversive to the child, so if forced to “Look at me” they may now be so uncomfortable they can’t really focus on what I’m saying. Or standing in close proximity to me could be a very uncomfortable situation, which makes attending to what I am saying more difficult. All of these factors must be considered when trying to get and keep the attention of a child with Autism.

 I think this is common knowledge, but if not let me share: Just because an individual with Autism is not looking into your eyes, does not mean they’re not listening. I know especially it can come off like disrespect if a child stares at the floor while you are talking to them, but for a child with Autism they may look away in order to put all their focus into listening.

Here are some suggestions for gaining attention:

  • Using the child’s name – I mention this briefly in my Stimming  post, but you really want to avoid using a child’s name to get their attention in an ABA session. You could end up saying the child’s name literally hundreds of times in a 2 hour session, and you are also teaching the child to pair their name with a demand. I will give a very clear example of how unpleasant this is from the child’s point of view. Lets say that every time you are at work, your boss calls out your name (“Tameika!”) and then follows it by giving you more work to do. How long would it take you to start feeling dread and annoyance when your boss says your name? Not very long. So it’s really important not to pair the child’s name with work (“Aidan, touch cup”…..”Aidan, give me yellow”…..”Aidan, how old are you”).
  • Touching/moving the child’s face – Beyond not being a true indicator of attention (the child may orient their face to you, but not their eyes), this can also be pretty aversive. Would you want me to yank your chin towards me because you aren’t paying attention to my story about my vacation? I doubt it. The child may have temporarily forgotten about your presence, so to abruptly touch their face or chin can be very jarring.
  • “Look at me!” –  Understand that saying “look at me” is not the same as asking the child to pay attention. Also, ple-e-ease do not shout at the child "Look at me!". That is not the way you want to gain attention. Use a natural tone of voice and an interesting facial expression, and say something like "Are you looking?" or (while gesturing to materials) "Look here".


  • Use Behavioral Momentum – Behavioral Momentum basically means to allow the individual to contact success first before presenting a demand or task. So if you are conducting an ABA session and the child is not paying attention, give them a few mastered tasks such as “Clap hands……stand up”. Then put out your cards/materials and start teaching. Be sure to reinforce the mastered tasks. This way the child has a behavioral cycle of {easy(reinforcer)+easy(reinforcer)} before you move to harder tasks, which can make it more likely they will attend.
  • Be fun and engaging – The best ways to gain attention will always be child specific. However I can say that for past clients, we would have goofy things we did at the start of a session such as countdowns, arm/hand squeezes, racing to the work table, etc. For older or more high functioning children, you can offer choices (“Should we do Matching or play the Numbers Game first?”). This way the child is involved in the structure of the session, and you now have their attention.
  • Capture or Contrive M.O. – Capturing the motivation of the child will always lead you into gaining their attention. If I want $5, and you walk up to me holding $5, I’m probably going to pay attention to what you’re saying to me. Wouldn’t you? So start the session by conducting a Reinforcer Preference Assessment, to see what will motivate the individual/client. Gaining and keeping attention should always be a byproduct of consistent Differential Reinforcement, capturing motivation, and approaching the individual with powerful reinforcers.

*Quick Tip:

Attending should not be a skill that is assumed upon. Maybe the individual/client does not know how to attend. In that case, you can use ABA strategies to teach the skill. Here are a few suggested skill acquisition programs to target attending:

Receptive Language
Responding to Name
Attend to an Object  


  1. Fantastic! I've been an ABA student in grad school for nearly 3 years and I've caught myself doing some of the no-no's on your list. Thanks so much for helpful tips that I can add to my arsenal!

    1. Im glad the blog is helpful for you! Good luck in grad school :-)

  2. I LOVE all the information I've been devouring on your website! I have literally just begun a career in ABA (a little over a month) as a behavior technician after teaching high school students. I'm commenting on this post specifically because I am finding it challenging to teach a 3 year old child how to respond to their name. I've been taught by my supervisor to 1) call his name, pause. 2) No response? call his name again and pause. 3) provide the next item he is engaged with (in this case, its parts of a Mr. Potato Head), and place the item in their line of sight and have them track it up to my eyes and then say the name again. 4) Call name and when there is eye contact, praise heavily and give the child the item. Thing is, I'm not finding this to be super successful. What has happened instead of the child responding to their name is that bringing out the item in their line of sight now prompts the child to look WITHOUT the name being called and without the item needing to be tracked up to my own eyes.

    I guess my question is this: What other, more beneficial and effective ways can I try to teach my child to respond to their name in a more natural way?

    Thank you so much for all the resources!! I appreciate them SO much!

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I would suggest you speak to your supervisor and explain the issues you are having, and ask what (based on the data) would be some good ways to work around these issues.

      The tips in this post are general, and may not be specifically applicable to all clients. Without working with your client, there is no way I could know what precise strategies would be most effective. Interventions are always individualized, so the best thing to do is to run all these concerns by your supervisor. :-)


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