Improving Joint Attention in Children With Autism

Joint Attention Is a Key Social Communication Skill

A man reading to a special needs child.
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If you have a child with autism, you may have heard therapists tell you that your child needs to work on something called "joint attention." By understanding why joint attention may be impaired in autism, and how you and your child's therapist can help optimize it, you will improve your child's social engagement and connections.

Why Joint Attention Is Important

Simply put, joint attention means the same thing as shared attention. When you and your child are reading a book together, you are paying "joint attention" to the pictures. When you are reading the book and your child is playing with his fingers, wandering around the room, or noticing a bird flying by the window, you may be reading to your child, but you and your child are not sharing joint attention.

It can be very tough to develop joint attention skills in a child with autism, but the ability to attend to a conversation or activity along with another person is absolutely critical for your child's future social, academic, and long-term success. Just as importantly, joint attention is an important first step toward imitation, one of the most important developmental tools for young children.

Why Joint Attention Is Difficult for Children With Autism

Unlike typically developing children or even children with related disorders such as ADHD, children with autism are often more interested in and engaged by their own thoughts and sensations than by other people or even the outside world. As is implied in the word "autism (meaning "self-ism"), people on the spectrum tend to focus inward rather than outward. While that's not necessarily a problem some of the time, it can limit children's ability to learn through imitation, develop play and social skills, and attend in a learning situation such as a classroom.

How to Improve Joint Attention

Quite a few therapeutic techniques specifically help kids with autism work on joint attention skills, and all of them begin with the idea that true joint attention only occurs when both parties actively want to pay attention to the same thing.

Applied behavior therapy (ABA) has been used successfully to build joint attention skills, but developmental and play therapies including relationship development intervention (RDI) and ​floortime may be even more effective.

While there isn't a lot of research to compare the outcomes of behavioral versus developmental therapy in treating lack of joint attention skills, parents will certainly have a lot more fun working with their children through play.

If you're working on building joint attention with a very young child, it's important to figure out first what's likely to engage them. Many children with autism respond well to gentle tickles, chase games, bubble popping, and other fun, sensory-friendly, open-ended activities. These can serve as a terrific gateway to back-and-forth play and shared activities, such as building with blocks.

Seek out the guidance of a therapist who has experience working with children with autism. Together you can create a plan that will help your child maximize his attention and engage with you, others, and his environment.

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Article Sources
  • Bottema-Beutel, K., Yoder, P.J., Hochman, J.M. et al. The role of supported joint engagement and parent utterances in language and social communication development in children with autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord, 2014. 44: 2162.
  • Gulsrud, A. C., Hellemann, G. S., Freeman, S. F.N. and Kasari, C. Two to ten years: developmental trajectories of joint attention in children With ASD who received targeted social communication interventions. Autism Res, 2014, 7: 207–215. doi:10.1002/aur.1360
  • Warreyn, Petra, et al. See what I see, do as I do: Promoting joint attention and imitation in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder. Ghent University, Belgium. August, 2014. Volume: 18 issue: 6, page(s): 658-671