Attention-seeking behavior is common. There are both functional and dysfunctional methods and reasons for trying to get someone’s attention.

For example, children who strive to do well in school often seek positive reinforcement for good behaviors, which is a form of functional attention seeking. Throwing a tantrum, on the other hand, is often a form of dysfunctional attention seeking in which a child is trying to get attention through negative actions.

Children with autism often engage in problematic attention-seeking behaviors and need help managing them. Engaging in purposeful quality time, ignoring negative behaviors, and reinforcing positive actions can help to manage attention-seeking behaviors in children. Adults can benefit from mindfulness and becoming more aware of their own feelings and actions. 

Attention-seeking behaviors often need to be managed differently in someone with autism.

What Is Attention-Seeking Behavior?

Attention-seeking behaviors include any actions in which a person is trying to gain recognition from another person. In children, this often includes parents and caregivers, while in adults it can be common to engage peers, coworkers, or family members.

Not all attention-seeking behaviors are bad. Children and adults often seek recognition and praise for doing something good.

Attention-seeking behaviors that need to be managed and controlled are often considered problematic. They can be destructive, difficult, and even dangerous. 

These are examples of dysfunctional attention-seeking behaviors common in autistic children:

  • Bouncing, dancing, and jumping
  • Being loud
  • Throwing a tantrum
  • Crying or fake crying
  • Acting as if a task is impossible
  • Whining
  • Bolting or running off
  • Self-harm including head banging, hair pulling, or throwing the body down
  • Violence towards others, including hitting, kicking, biting, or lashing out

Attention-seeking behaviors in adults are often driven by low self-esteem, jealousy, or loneliness. They can include the following:

  • Controversial actions designed to get a reaction
  • Fishing for compliments to get recognition and validation
  • Embellishing and exaggerating stories to elicit sympathy or praise
  • Faking an inability to complete a task

Attention-Seeking Behavior & Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that includes difficulties with communication and social interactions. Many with autism also exhibit repetitive and restrictive behaviors. Close to 40% of people with autism are nonverbal. 

A high percentage also have intellectual challenges, mental health disorders, and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Attention-seeking behaviors are common in people with autism.

When managing attention-seeking behaviors in someone with autism, it is important to consider safety. These problematic behaviors can often be dangerous, either to the self or others, and need to be handled accordingly. For instance, if a child is prone to bolting from safety when not attended to, accommodations need to be in place to ensure that they cannot get out of the safe environment.

Preventive and proactive strategies and actions, and reactive strategies and actions can be used to manage attention-seeking behaviors. Proactive strategies are methods for stalling the negative attention-seeking behaviors before they begin. Reactive strategies help to manage them once they occur.

Managing Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

When a child’s attention-seeking behavior is distracting and uncomfortable, parents can often manage this by using some tried-and-true proactive and reactive strategies. 

There are several methods that can work to minimize and manage attention-seeking behavior, such as the following:

  • Ignore some problematic behaviors. This can be hard to do, but if you do not give the child the attention they are asking for — because even scolding or negative attention is still attention — they will often stop engaging in the negative actions. If the actions are harmful to themselves or others, try and minimize your contact with the child while you remove them from the situation and into safety — without reprimand. It is crucial to stay consistent with your actions.

  • Praise appropriate behaviors. This method works both as a proactive and a reactive solution. For example, if a child is acting out and you ignore the negative actions and they start reengaging in positive behaviors, praise them for the positive behavior. As a preventive measure, praising positive behaviors before a child acts out can help them act out less since they are already receiving attention.

  • Use distractions. When a child is engaging in negative behaviors, or even if you know that certain situations or events usually induce these actions, redirecting their attention onto something else can help prevent or minimize dysfunctional attention-seeking behaviors.

  • Understand the trigger or cause. By having an understanding of what may lead to negative attention-seeking behaviors, you can better prevent or minimize their occurrence. For instance, if you know that your child reacts when overstimulated, try to avoid this situation.

  • Plan regular quality time. This proactive strategy can help your child understand that they will get your complete attention at a specific time each day to do what they are interested in. Set boundaries and expectations for this time and truly engage with the child. They will know they are important and can have some measure of control.

When helping manage attention-seeking behaviors in a child with autism, it is crucial to reinforce positive behaviors and actions through praise and rewards while ignoring problematic ones.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a form of therapy that can help reinforce positive behaviors while managing destructive and nonfunctional ones. With the help of a trained therapist, parents can learn new and effective techniques for managing attention-seeking behaviors while improving social interactions and communication skills in children with autism.

Adults & Attention-Seeking Behavior

Adults with autism can use mindfulness to help cope with dysfunctional and attention-seeking behaviors. By becoming more in tune with their body and emotions, and how their connection influences reactions and actions, a person can learn to manage behaviors. Mindfulness practices can be learned through therapy interventions, such as behavioral and movement therapies. 

Attention-seeking behaviors in adults often stem from low self-esteem. Learning to connect with oneself and find fulfillment within can help to minimize these types of negative behaviors. Life skills training and therapeutic interventions can help with this. Therapists can help adults with autism recognize dysfunctional attention-seeking behaviors and how to deal with them appropriately.

Friends and family members of autistic adults who are engaging in attention-seeking behaviors may use similar proactive and reactive strategies that are used with children. For instance, it is still helpful to ignore negative behaviors and encourage or reinforce positive ones.

Quality time and focused attention can help to decrease attention-seeking behaviors and make the autistic individual feel understood and worthy.