It’s difficult navigating the autistic space when a child does something for attention. On the one hand, it’s hard because you want to give them all the attention in the world; on the other hand, they have a lot less ways than other kids of gaining the attention they need.
As caregivers it can lead our heads in a spin; is ignoring their behavior when it is attention seeking the right thing to do? Are we neglecting their needs? Shouldn’t we be their strength of communication for them by speaking/acting/advocating for them?
With Applied Behavioral Analyses (ABA) therapy a technique called active ignoring is used in certain circumstances, where the child is trying to get attention, or what they want, with socially unacceptable behavior, like spitting, whining, or violence.
We don’t ignore them because we want the child to feel abandoned or unheard, but because it encourages the child to search for new ways to gain the attention. We can’t explain with our words why they shouldn’t spit, so we have to explain with routine and patterns (or basically, in the way an autistic child can understand).
It’s important to not feel guilty when you’re ignoring whining for food, or other things that seem necessary or even neglectful to ignore. Remember, you are actively ignoring inappropriate behavior that won’t serve them, not ignoring their needs. You will meet their needs, just not right that second.
For example, you’re playing with their sibling so they take his toy, this forces you to turn your attention onto them to ask them to give it back. They now have your attention moved from their sibling and onto them. In their minds they’re not worried about the social repercussions, all they know is they have gained the thing they wanted;. You looking at them and talking to them instead of their sibling.
You need to speak the autistic child’s language here. Turning your attention to them to scold them doesn’t teach them anything when they don’t understand a full range of empathy, verbally explaining the situation does nothing when they don’t understand everything you are saying.
However, giving the other child tons of attention, taking the toy back without even looking at them, blocking the snatching, and actively ignoring, teaches: this action doesn’t get a desired result. But (and this is where we as caregivers can breathe a sigh of relief) once the undesired behavior stops, or the child uses a more appropriate way of asking for attention, you can lavish them with praise and affection.
The two should always be used together, otherwise ignoring will be in-effective and seemingly random for the child. This is all about routines and patterns, and giving your child a way to communicate and to latch onto that they understand.
Active ignoring is different from ignoring a child. You actively make a conscious decision to ignore a specific behavior and give attention to other behaviors. It can feel unnatural at first, but once you see your child blossoming into speech, or other appropriate means of asking for your attention, your relationship will be much stronger.