The Importance of Joint Attention for Kids With Autism

Learning is tough for kids who don't have joint attention skills

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As infants, children don't yet have the experience to understand what they are seeing, hearing, or feeling. Very quickly, however, they learn to turn toward a familiar voice, and within a few months, they are able to smile in response to a smile, recognize a beloved face, and respond to a sound by turning their heads.

By the time they are a year old, most toddlers notice when another person is paying attention to something or someone. Even when the adult neither points nor actively attracts the child's attention, the child sees the parent's gaze and follows it. When the parent actively points or attracts attention, the child will intentionally join the parent's focus on, for example, a picture in a book or a bird flying through the trees. This is joint attention.

Why Is Joint Attention Important?

The child will see and respond to the parent's gaze by:

  1. Taking note of where the parent is looking;
  2. Taking an interest in where the parent is looking;
  3. Imitating the parent's gaze
  4. Noticing what the parent is noticing
  5. Joining the parent in his or her reaction to the object or activity

Typically developing children are also likely to turn their gaze to their parent's face to determine their parent's reaction to whatever they are seeing or hearing. Often, the child will actually imitate the parent's emotional response. Thus, if mom sees a lovely rainbow, the child will follow her gaze, see the rainbow, note mom's pleased response, and imitate that response.

As parents and teachers instruct children in communication skills—acquiring words, reading words, recognizing shapes and colors, etc.—they draw children's attention to pictures or objects while speaking the correct words. Children automatically make the connection between the object they see, hear, taste, or smell—and the words or letters that communicate that idea.

Joint attention is a key tool, therefore, for social communication and language development. It's also a key tool for making social connections.

Autistic Problems With Joint Attention

Children with autism often have significant problems with developing and using joint attention. They may not naturally follow another person's gaze or even "hear" their own name being called (they literally hear the sound, but don't associate it with a call for attention). Naturally, these issues are part of the reason why children with autism have so much trouble with social communication, language development, and social relationships. They may also have a significant impact on academic learning.

It's important to be aware, however, that children with autism behave differently from typical children—and that may mean that their joint attention skills are present, but that are not obvious. According to some studies, children with autism may attend "covertly," meaning that they are listening or watching without actively coming over or showing their interest. They may also find it harder to switch their attention from a preferred activity to whatever mom, dad, or a teacher finds interesting.

Teaching Join Attention to Kids With Autism

While they may not come naturally, in most cases, children with autism can be actively taught the skills of joint attention. Perhaps more significantly to parents, children with autism can be taught how to SHOW their interest and attention in more conventional ways (by pointing, head turning, and so forth). The reality is that typically developing children and adults need social input—which means that children and adults with autism must behave typically in order to be understood.

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  • Charman T. "Why Is Joint Attention a Pivotal Skill in Autism?" Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003 Feb 28;358(1430):315-24.
  • Gernsbacher, Morton Ann et al. "Why Does Joint Attention Look Atypical in Autism?" Child Development Perspectives, Volume 2, Number 1, Pages 38–45, 2009.