A child who is unable to focus and pay attention is not going to be able to learn. What can we do to help? There are two guiding ‘principles’ to keep in mind that help a child to focus and share attention. One I call ‘walking the tightrope between fear and delight’, using suspense and surprise to keep the child engaged and wondering what is going to happen or what you are going to do next, or how, or in what slightly different way. It also helps to ‘make it bigger’, i.e. being more dramatic, more emotionally engaging, using more expansive movements, more ‘stretch’ in your suspense, exaggerating how we speak, its speed, its pitch, its tones. How can you stretch that ‘imaginary elastic’ that is connecting his attention to yours some more, and then a bit more again, and then some more!? Sometimes this means moving exaggeratedly more slowly, or stopping suddenly, or whispering. We need to make our presence unavoidable for him, but in such fun ways as not to put him off, should he risk coming out of his shell. However, ‘making it bigger’ does not simply mean more, harder, louder, faster, but tuning in sensitively to the child’s feeling-state and making it into a shared experience.
The success of these games hinges on the adult’s understanding that they are not educational in a functional sense, but about playing with intentions and feelings, about building up expectations, and then stretching, breaking, re-making and mucking about with them, always ‘walking the tightrope between fear and delight’.
Perhaps the child actually feels a little threatened somehow. But there is something odd about this so-called ‘threat’: it is coming at him and disappearing, or changing, too fast for what would instinctively qualify as a serious threat. The moment he is ready to retreat or run away, the threat itself has retreated.
What is going on here? Where has it gone? The child cannot withdraw safely, because that threat is still hanging around somewhere. So he’s got to look. The repeated sudden disappearance of the ‘threat’ coming at him draws his attention to it, his curiosity is engaged, his mind alerted, his senses drawn together into one focus, so unusual for the autistic child, – and so good for him.
If the adult manages to create a situation that is ambiguous enough to arouse the need for curiosity, carefully scaffolded in an atmosphere of friendly affection, then the young autistic child is usually drawn to engage and interact socially in similarly unexpected ways. Some responsive non-autistic capacities may have been hibernating, waiting to be claimed and re-claimed through moments of playful communicative contact, to thrill and enliven the passive or withdrawn child, and the despairing or worn out adult too. (in: ‘Reaching the Young Autistic Child’ by Sibylle Janert (2000)