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Why Learning Attending Skills Is Important For Children With Autism

Teaching attending behaviors to children with autism can help improve socialization skills and retention of information. Attending skills may also prove useful for individuals without an autism spectrum diagnosis. Many counselors and therapists adopt attending behaviors for the comfort of their clientele and to make them feel heard through the demonstration of active listening. Even Forbes has published an article on the usefulness of implementing attending behaviors.

What Are Attending Skills?

Allen Ivey introduced the concept of attending in 1968 as the “basic skill of counseling.” While exploring the shared characteristics of experienced councilors in videotaped sessions, Ivey and his colleagues discovered the employment of attending skills — indications to a speaker that a person is actively listening to them rather than only hearing them. Although listening and hearing may seem interchangeable, there is a crucial difference: Hearing can occur without listening, but listening cannot occur without hearing. To truly listen, a person must gain an understanding of what a speaker says in such a way that they can react appropriately.

Actively listening to a speaker improves communication and can fortify relationships through simple but engaged conversation. When a speaker feels that their audience is listening, it can also build trust between parties.

Teaching Attending Behaviors

Attending behaviors can be both visual and auditory, and while some people develop these skills naturally, children diagnosed with autism may have a more difficult time displaying them. However, Ivey and his colleagues suggest that attending behaviors can be taught.

Ivey writes that his team invited their secretary, Mary, to interview a volunteer student in a videotaped session. Following her interview, Ivey gave Mary instructions on the basics of attending, and they reviewed the video of her first session. Then, Mary spoke with the volunteer student a second time. Ivey describes the difference in Mary’s behavior between the two sessions as “dramatic” and notes Mary’s enthusiasm the following week after

 she applied attending behaviors in her day-to-day life.

Verbal Attending

Verbal indications are one of the main ways to give a speaker attention and let them know they have focus. To give a verbal signal to a speaker, a listener might ask a question for clarity or paraphrase the information to confirm their understanding. These verbal cues allow the speaker to know they are speaking to an attentive listener without much disruption in the flow of conversation. Verbal cues may also develop into different topics or open the conversation for deeper meaning.

Paralinguistic Signs & Body Language

Paralinguistic cues are those that are auditory but non-verbal. When listening to someone speak, indicating attentiveness by using non-verbal cues may include expressions like “uh-huh,” “hmm,” or other audible signs such as sighing, gasping, or groaning.

Listeners may also display attention with their body language. Active listeners may posture themselves toward the speaker and might also make eye contact during conversation. Engaging in a conversation can also require the listener to be within a certain distance of the speaker.

Attending for Children With Autism

While attending can be useful in many different circumstances, it may look a little different for children with autism. Although some speakers may come to expect a particular degree of attention during social interactions, there are attending behaviors that some individuals with autism spectrum disorder may find difficult.

For instance, eye contact is a common struggle for people with autism. Additionally, remaining still and outwardly attentive may

 also come as a challenge. Instead of displaying attending body language, they may prefer to be in motion, fidgeting, or stimming in some other form while listening. These actions can help people with autism to listen actively and should be encouraged along with other attending behaviors that the child is comfortable with.

Attending In Mixed Groups of Neurodivergent & Neurotypical Students

For educators who are teaching mixed groups of neurodivergent and neurotypical children, it’s important to explain that some students learn in different ways and may need flexibility in the classroom. It is also critical to monitor the attention of both groups of students to ensure that flexibility given to neurodivergent students does not distract or deter from the learning experience for others in the classroom.

Educators may also try to seat neurodivergent students who have attending difficulties near other students who can act as positive models. Alternatively, these students may excel when seated close to the teacher and away from any potential distractions. Attending behaviors are not universal, but teaching attending skills can enrich students’ learning abilities and deepen their understanding in conversation.

Sources Cited:

Autism Awareness Centre. Tips To Teach Whole Body Listening: It’s a Tool Not a Rule.

Ivey, Allen E. Attending Behavior: The Basis of Counseling.

Ivey, Allen E. Microcounseling and Attending Behavior: An Approach to Prepracticum Counselor Training.

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