Autism and Attention-Seeking Behaviors: What You Can Do to Stop the Cycle

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Attention-seeking behaviors are common in children and adults with autism, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that many children without autism exhibit these types of behaviors as well. Attention-seeking behaviors range from silly to defiant to violent at times. And in a person with autism, negative attention-seeking behaviors can be particularly problematic and difficult to stop.

Attention-seeking behaviors aren’t necessarily a bad thing at their core. All humans are social beings and crave attention, so when we’re not getting enough attention, we naturally change our behavior in an attempt to get more of it. Another reason a person might engage in an attention-seeking behavior is as a distraction to put off doing something they dislike, such as bathtime or bedtime. While the presence of attention-seeking behaviors doesn’t mean that the parents, teachers, or other caregivers are doing anything wrong, it may be a sign that something needs to change.

How do I know if it’s an attention-seeking behavior?

Not sure if a misbehavior is an attention-seeking behavior? Here are some clues. If the person looks directly at you while misbehaving or purposely gets your attention before engaging in the activity, it is probably an attention-seeking behavior. They may also tell you about what they are going to do or have done if you haven’t seen it, or they may repeat the behavior if it doesn’t elicit a response the first time. It is most likely an attention-seeking behavior if it is obvious that the person knows they are misbehaving and wants you to know it as well.

What can I do to discourage attention-seeking behaviors?

As we discussed, there is a variety of reasons why a person with autism may display negative attention-seeking behavior. He or she may be lacking proper attention, be attempting to put off doing something they dislike, or have another reason entirely. Make sure that the child is getting everything they need, physically and emotionally, before you attempt to stop the behavior by other means.

Once you’re past that, one of the best go-to responses to an attention-seeking behavior is to ignore the behavior. Rewarding a negative attention-seeking behavior with attention (even if it’s negative attention) lets the person know that this kind of behavior will elicit a response and is, therefore, something worth repeating. By not rewarding the behavior with any kind of attention, you’re sending the message that the behavior isn’t worth repeating because it will not get a response.

It’s important to remember that you’re not ignoring your child or the person you’re caring for—you’re simply ignoring the bad behavior. Attention is important to all human beings and should be given whenever appropriate—just not while an attention-seeking behavior is occurring.


Click “next” below to find out what to do if the attention-seeking behavior is endangering someone (and more).

Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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