Rethinking Sitting Tolerance as a Measure of Child’s Attention Span

Rethinking Sitting Tolerance as a Measure of Child’s Attention Span: Considerations for Autism Therapists and Educators

In the realm of evaluating a child’s attention span and focus, the concept of “sitting tolerance” has often been used as a parameter. However, when it comes to children with autism, relying solely on sitting tolerance to gauge their attention and focus can be misleading and counterproductive. In this blog, we will explore why sitting tolerance is an inadequate measure and suggest alternative considerations for therapists and educators when assessing attention and focus in children with autism.

The Limitations of Sitting Tolerance
Sitting tolerance refers to a child’s ability to sit still for a specific period of time. While it might be a suitable measure for typically developing children, it falls short in capturing the nuances of attention and focus in children with autism. Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals in diverse ways, including sensory sensitivities, communication challenges, and unique learning styles. Expecting a child with autism to exhibit the same sitting tolerance as their neurotypical peers is unrealistic and ignores these individual differences.

Sitting tolerance limitations in children can vary, but some common factors include their age, developmental stage, attention span, and sensory sensitivities. Younger children typically have shorter sitting tolerance due to their need for movement and exploration. Attention difficulties, sensory processing issues, and discomfort can also affect a child’s ability to sit for extended periods. It’s important to remember that children’s sitting tolerance can improve with age, practice, and appropriate accommodations. However, if you’re concerned about a child’s sitting tolerance, consider the following factors and further consult with a pediatrician or occupational therapist who could provide valuable insights.

Factors to Consider

1. Sensory Sensitivities: Many children with autism may have sensory sensitivities that make sitting for extended periods uncomfortable or even painful. These sensitivities might lead to fidgeting or restlessness, not because they are disinterested, but as a way to manage sensory overload. Evaluators must consider sensory factors before interpreting a child’s behavior.

2. Diverse Learning Styles: Children with autism and other special educational needs often learn differently from their neurotypical peers. They might be more engaged and focused when allowed to move around, sit in a certain way, fidget or rock, sit on the floor, engage in hands-on activities, or learn through visual aids. Judging their attention solely based on sitting tolerance on a chair disregards their unique learning preferences.

3. Communication Challenges: Most of the children with autism struggle with expressive communication. Their apparent lack of engagement might not be due to a lack of attention, but rather an inability to express their thoughts, feelings, and interests verbally. This communication barrier can lead to misunderstandings about their focus and attention span.

4. Hyperfocus: Children with autism might also experience “hyperfocus,” where they become intensely absorbed in a specific activity of their interest. While this might not align with traditional sitting tolerance expectations, it showcases their ability to concentrate deeply on tasks of interest.

5. Flexible Environments: Autism-friendly environments that incorporate sensory breaks, varied seating options, and opportunities for movement can create a conducive atmosphere for children to focus and engage. Measuring sitting tolerance without accommodating these environmental needs can really hinder their performance.

Guidelines for Evaluating Attention and Focus in Children with Autism

Evaluating attention and focus in children with autism requires a comprehensive approach. Common guidelines involve assessing various aspects:

1.Behavioral Observation: Observe how the child engages in different activities and interacts with others. Look for signs of engagement beyond just sitting still, or giving an eye contact, beyond the normal mode of communication. Engagement could be achieved immediately through their expressions of interest. Observe a child’s interactions and behavior in various contexts to sustained attention, distractibility, and difficulty shifting focus.

2. Individualized Approaches: Tailor assessment methods to each child’s needs and preferences. Provide choices for seating, incorporate sensory tools, and utilize a mix of learning styles to allow for a more accurate representation of their attention and focus.

3. Use of Technology: Technology can be a valuable tool to engage children with autism. Interactive educational apps, games, alternative communication methods and digital platforms can help in capturing their interest and provide insights into their focus and attention.

4. Collaboration: Work closely with the kid’s parents, or caregivers, and other professionals who interact with the child daily or much frequently. Gathering a comprehensive view of the child’s behaviors, strengths, and challenges can lead to a more accurate assessment.

5. Structured Assessments: Use proper standardized tools and performance tests to measure sustained attention, impulsivity, and vigilance in different settings.

6. Parent/Caregiver Input: Gather information from parents or caregivers about the child’s attention patterns at home and in different settings.

7. Teacher Input: Consult with teachers, special educators to understand the child’s attention and focus in a school environment. They can provide insights into classroom behavior and engagement.

8. Direct Interaction: Interact with the child in controlled settings (one on one with predictable structure given to the child)to assess their ability to sustain attention, follow instructions, and switch tasks.

9. Cognitive Tests: Administer cognitive tests to assess attention-related functions such as selective attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

10. Neuropsychological Testing: This can provide a detailed assessment of attention and executive function skills, helping to identify specific areas of difficulty.

11. Eye-Tracking Technology: Utilize eye-tracking technology to objectively measure where and for how long a child directs their visual attention.

12. Functional Assessment: Understand how attention difficulties impact daily functioning, academic performance, and social interactions.

13. Combined Approach: Consider using a combination of assessments to get a well-rounded understanding of the child’s attention and focus abilities.

Remember, every child with autism is unique, and assessment methods should be tailored to their individual needs and strengths rather than entirely focusing on sitting tolerance, eye contact, command following etc. Consultation with professionals experienced in autism evaluation is crucial for accurate assessment and intervention planning.

Source: Harry Thompson PDA extraordinaire

Shifting the focus away from sitting tolerance as the primary measure of attention span and focus for children with autism is essential. These individuals possess unique qualities and challenges that require a holistic and tailored approach to evaluation. By recognizing their sensory sensitivities, embracing diverse learning styles, understanding communication barriers, and providing flexible environments, therapists and educators can gain a more accurate understanding of a child’s attention and focus, leading to more effective support and interventions.

In the next blog, I will discuss various hands-on techniques which could help your child in developing Sitting Tolerance and Attention Building Skills in classroom settings.

Author Shilpi Mayank Awasthi


Beyond Eye Contact: The Importance of Eye Contact in Autism

Beyond Eye Contact: Reevaluating the obsession of Therapists, caregivers and counsellors with eye contact of an Autistic Individual

In the realm of autism therapy, one concept seems to hold undue fascination for therapists and caregivers alike is :- “eye contact“. The act of making direct eye contact is often perceived as a critical indicator of interest, connection, focus and attentiveness in social interactions. However, this narrow fixation on eye contact may be both misguided and detrimental to understanding and supporting autistic individuals effectively.

In this blog, we will delve into the importance of eye contact for individuals with autism; we will debunk the misconceptions and create understanding; we will explore the complexities surrounding eye contact; the reasons behind their challenges in making eye contact, and whether it should be considered a sole parameter for assessing and questioning autism; how to better support the individuals with Autism in Social Communication. And, most importantly, why it is essential to reevaluate its significance as the sole basis for evaluating focus, social engagement, being receptive and having a good bond and overall connection.

Debunking Misconceptions and Understanding Its True Value

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects communication, behaviors, and social interaction. One of the hallmark traits often associated with autism is the difficulty in establishing and maintaining eye contact. However, the significance of eye contact in autism has been a topic of considerable debate within both the scientific community and society at large.

While some individuals on the autism spectrum may engage in lesser eye contact or probably negligible eye contact, hence it is essential to avoid hasty conclusions about their intentions or level of interest. Associating a lack of eye contact solely with avoidance or disinterest can perpetuate stereotypes and stigmatization of autistic individuals, inadvertently undermining the possibility of genuine connections.

Understanding the Challenges of Eye Contact in Autism

Many people with autism find it challenging to engage in typical social interactions, including making eye contact. This difficulty stems from a combination of factors related to the nature of autism itself. Individuals with autism often experience sensory sensitivity, which means that direct eye contact can be overwhelming and uncomfortable for them. Additionally, they may have difficulties with social cognition, making it hard for them to interpret non-verbal cues, including eye contact, like neurotypical individuals do.

Therapists, pediatricians, child psychologists and caregivers must acknowledge that eye contact is just one aspect of nonverbal communication. It may be challenging for autistic individuals to maintain eye contact due to sensory sensitivities, social anxiety, or an inability to process multiple stimuli simultaneously. In such cases, forcing eye contact, looking at your face may cause unnecessary distress and lead to a breakdown in communication, chain of thoughts, hindering any potential for meaningful interaction.

Importance of Eye Contact in Communication

Eye contact plays a crucial role in social communication for neurotypical individuals. It fosters a sense of connection and understanding between people, and it is an integral part of non-verbal communication. When we make eye contact with someone, it signals that we are attentive and engaged in the conversation. It also helps in gauging emotional states and intentions, making interactions smoother and more intuitive.

Building a connection with an autistic child or individual goes beyond the pursuit of eye contact. It requires sensitivity, empathy, and an understanding of their unique communication preferences. It is crucial to recognize and respect the diverse ways in which autistic individuals express interest and focus, as these may differ from neurotypical norms.

Instead of fixating on eye contact, therapists and caregivers should prioritize creating a safe and supportive environment that fosters open communication. This includes offering alternative communication methods, such as using visual aids, sign language, or assistive technology, to help bridge the gap between autistic individuals and their neurotypical counterparts.

Additionally, actively listening to what an autistic person is saying or conveying is far more indicative of their attentiveness and interest than whether they are maintaining eye contact. Listening involves understanding their verbal and nonverbal cues, validating their feelings, and responding appropriately. By doing so, we can build trust and demonstrate respect, leading to more meaningful connections.

It is essential to recognize that not all autistic individuals have the same communication preferences or needs. Some may be comfortable with limited eye contact, while others may find it more accessible at certain times or with specific individuals they trust. The key lies in creating a flexible and accommodating environment that respects these differences, rather than forcing conformity to neurotypical norms.

Eye Contact as a Diagnostic Criterion

In the past, professionals diagnosing autism often relied on the absence or minimal eye contact as one of the diagnostic criteria. However, the field of autism research and understanding has evolved significantly, and it is now recognized that using eye contact as a sole parameter for diagnosis can be misleading and problematic.

Challenges with Using Eye Contact as a Diagnostic Criterion

1. Cultural Variation: Eye contact norms vary across cultures. In some cultures, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful or inappropriate, while in others, it is a sign of attentiveness. Using eye contact as a strict diagnostic criterion may lead to misdiagnosis or overdiagnosis based on cultural differences.

2. Variability in Autism Presentation: Autism is a spectrum disorder, and its manifestation can vary significantly from one individual to another. While some individuals with autism may have challenges with eye contact, others may not exhibit such difficulties at all. Relying solely on eye contact as a diagnostic criterion can overlook the diverse ways autism can manifest.

3. Developmental Changes: Some individuals with autism may improve their eye contact over time, especially with appropriate interventions and support. Using eye contact as a rigid diagnostic parameter may overlook the potential for progress and improvement.

The True Significance of Eye Contact in Autism

Rather than viewing eye contact as a definitive indicator of autism, it is essential to understand that it is just one aspect of a more complex communication profile. Professionals and caregivers should focus on a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s communication and social interaction skills. Emphasizing the significance of eye contact might overshadow other essential areas of development and prevent individuals from receiving appropriate support and interventions.

Supporting Individuals with Autism in Social Communication

i.) Individualized Approach: Instead of pressuring individuals with autism to make eye contact, it is more effective to adopt an individualized approach to communication. Some may benefit from alternative communication methods, such as using visual aids or focusing on verbal interactions.

ii.) Social Skills Training: Social skills training can be immensely beneficial for individuals with autism. These programs help teach social cues and non-verbal communication in a structured and supportive environment.

iii.) Sensory Support: For those with sensory sensitivity, providing appropriate sensory support can make social interactions less overwhelming. This may involve creating a calm and safe environment, using sensory tools, or allowing breaks when needed.

So concluding my today’s blog with these facts:- 

●the fascination with eye contact as the primary gauge of interest and engagement in autistic individuals needs to be reevaluated.
●While eye contact can be a meaningful aspect of communication for some, it holds significant value in neurotypical social communication, it should not be overemphasized or used as a sole parameter of a person’s focus or interest in others or a determinant for assessing and questioning autism.
●Therapists and caregivers must embrace a more holistic approach to understanding and supporting autistic individuals, one that celebrates their unique communication styles and fosters genuine connections based on trust, empathy, and mutual understanding. ●By doing so, we can move beyond the limitations of eye contact and create a more understanding and compassionate society for everyone.

Individuals with autism may experience challenges with eye contact due to various factors, such as sensory sensitivity and difficulties with social cognition. Understanding the unique communication profiles of people with autism and providing tailored support and interventions will empower them to navigate social interactions successfully. The focus should be on embracing neurodiversity and fostering inclusive communication environments that respect the diverse ways individuals with autism interact with the world.

Author Shilpi Mayank Awasthi
Founder SpecialSaathi


6 best strategies for core strength and focus building

A video blog by Pinki Kumar on Occupational therapy at home for your ASD child.6 best strategies for core strength and focus building

Author Pinki Kumar

Pinki is a special educator, play therapist and a mother of a neurodivergent kid. She has a YouTube channel Play and learn to teach different methods and strategies. These videos are a great resource for the parents to help their child learn various skills.


Focus building activity by using an ear bud and plastic

A video blog by Pinki Kumar on Focus building activity by using an ear bud and plastic.

Author Pinki Kumar

Pinki is a special educator, play therapist and a mother of a neurodivergent kid. She has a YouTube channel Play and learn to teach different methods and strategies. These videos are a great resource for the parents to help their child learn various skills.


Best Focus,concentration & fine motor activities for ADHD and ASD kids

A video blog by Pinki Kumar on Best Focus,concentration & fine motor activities for ADHD and ASD kids

Author Pinki Kumar

Pinki is a special educator, play therapist and a mother of a neurodivergent kid. She has a YouTube channel Play and learn to teach different methods and strategies. These videos are a great resource for the parents to help their child learn various skills.