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Attention in autism is affected by several different factors. The main influence on an autistic person's attention is the severity of the disorder. As there are variations in the severity of autism, there are also variations in what affects attention. Most commonly, influential factors include an autistic person's ability to remain focused, which things hold focus, and how an autistic person is able to pick up cues from her surroundings and other people. Thinking skills that are required to attract or maintain attention play a large role in the factors that influence attention.
Autism is different for each individual, so the symptoms exhibited tend to differ greatly. A person with a mild case of autism may function normally but appear to be overactive. In some cases, mild autism is confused for attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The symptoms of autism, whether mild or complex, often mimic ADD and ADHD, particularly regarding attention in autism.
Executive functioning is the term used to describe skills required to comprehend social cues. This skill set includes planning, organizing, and holding attention. There are different types of attention in autism, from multiple trains of thought to paying attention to small details. Various levels of autism each have different forms of attention.
Attention in autism can involve attention to small details, almost obsessively. Things like how many crackers are on a plate are considered small details. Here, a person with autism recognizes how many crackers there are, but would not consider all of the other ones in a package. The autism prevents him from seeing the broad scope of things.
Complex thinking is another part of attention in autism that can suffer. As a skill included in executive functioning, complex thinking plays a large role in sustaining attention. A deficiency in this skill prevents an autistic person from thinking about more than one thing at a time. The scope of focus is on what is immediate and at that specific point.
Organizing ideas and thoughts is another aspect of attention in autism. Without these skills, an autistic person may seem bored or uninterested. Sequencing and planning are affected as well. In this instance, the inability to maintain attention has to do with not being able to think about one thing and carry it out while simultaneously thinking about what is next.
For mild forms of autism, such as Asperger's, there are ways to help people with their attention problems. Implementing structured organization and planning can help autistic people who struggle with paying attention. Children and adults with mild autism may find it beneficial to have written lists. Writing everything down and, whenever possible, breaking larger tasks into smaller steps can be very helpful.
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