Improving Joint Attention in Children With Autism

a father and son reading together

 Kohei Hara / Getty Images

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

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.

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

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  1. Weisberg HR, Jones EA. Individualizing intervention to teach joint attention, requesting, and social referencing to children with autism. Behav Anal Pract. 2019;12(1):105-123. doi:10.1007/s40617-018-0265-5

  2. Paparella T, Freeman SFN. Methods to improve joint attention in young children with autism: a review. Pediatric Health Med Ther. 2015;6:65-78. doi:10.2147/PHMT.S41921

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