Joint Attention in Children with Autism

Joint Attention in Children with Autism

child holding picture

Have you noticed that your child with autism has a hard time following your finger when you are pointing at something? It is actually quite common. Children with autism often have trouble with joint attention

In this article we will explain what joint attention is and how ABA therapy can help your child with theirs. 

What is joint attention?

First let’s give the technical definition of joint attention. 

Joint attention is a social phenomenon in which two people focus their attention on the same object or activity. 

It involves sharing an experience with another person, often through eye contact and/or verbal communication. 

Joint attention is an important social skill which allows people to communicate and build relationships with each other.

Some common example of joint attention include:

  1.  Pointing to an object and making eye contact.
  2. Following the gaze of another person to look at an object.
  3. Responding to a gesture, such as a wave or a nod of the head.
  4. Sharing an experience, such as reading a book together.
  5. Taking turns in a conversation.
  6. Showing an object to someone and waiting for them to respond.
  7. Playing together and taking turns.Participating in a shared activity, such as playing a game.
  8. Using facial expressions to communicate.
  9. Listening and responding to verbal requests.

Joint attention typically begins to develop in infants around 9-12 months of age, as they are beginning to understand and respond to the social cues at that time.

Being that children with autism can have a hard time with eye contact and communication, their joint attention can suffer. This can have a detrimental effect on their development. 

Why is joint attention crucial for child development?

Joint attention is crucial for child development because it forms the basis for social interaction. 

It helps children learn to understand and share their experiences with others and helps them learn to communicate. 

Joint attention also helps children learn new words and understand the meaning of what is said and it enables them to understand the perspectives of others and form relationships with those around them. 

Basically, joint attention helps children understand and navigate the social world and build a sense of self.

If your child with autism is going to improve their joint attention they will need to learn some new skills first. 

Skills needed for improving joint attention

So what skills will your child with autism need to work on in order to improve their joint attention? Glad you asked. The most common ones are:

Verbal communication skills: Being able to use language to request and respond to requests, express preferences, and interact with others.

Social skills: Understanding nonverbal cues, engaging in conversation, and initiating interaction with others.

Imitation skills: Copying the actions of others, understanding and following verbal instructions, and engaging in pretend play.

Attention skills: Being able to focus and sustain attention on tasks and activities and being able to switch attention from one activity to another.

Executive functioning skills: Being able to plan, organize, prioritize, and persist in completing tasks.

Motor skills: Being able to coordinate motor movements, point to items, and follow basic movement patterns.

How ABA therapists encourage joint attention

So what can an ABA therapist do to help improve your child’s joint skills? Here is a list of some of the techniques that your child’s therapist might utilize:

1. Model behaviors that demonstrate joint attention, such as making eye contact and smiling when engaging with your child.

2. Use toys and objects to draw your child’s attention to the therapist or another person.

3. Use positive reinforcement to reward joint attention behaviors such as pointing, vocalizing, or initiating social interactions.

4. Provide opportunities for your child to practice joint attention skills in a structured environment.

5. Use picture communication cards and other visual supports to help your child understand and engage in joint attention activities.

6. Engage in activities that require shared attention, such as playing games and reading stories together.

7. Provide clear instructions and positive reinforcement to help your child understand and respond to joint attention requests.

While an ABA therapist can definitely help improve your child’s joint attention there are ways that you can help as well. Especially when you are playing with your child.

How playtime can improve your child’s joint attention

Playtime is the perfect time to help improve your child’s joint attention. You just have to make sure that you are doing activities that promote joint attention. The communication clubhouse website has a good list that can be found here:

Take turns stacking blocks or pushing cars down a slide/ramp. If your child likes to see things fall, don’t forget to knock the tower of blocks down!

Model gestures/visuals with songs. Think of “Wheels on the bus” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Play freeze dance. Look for eye contact or a smile from your child as you stand completely still. S/he may learn to anticipate the next time you move.

Say “Ready, Set, Go!” This can be used with many activities mentioned in this list. Model the full phrase repeatedly and then try pausing before saying “Go.” Wait to see if your child makes eye contact with you before saying “Go!”

Blow and pop bubbles together. Try catching a bubble with the wand, bring it up to your face, and encourage your child to pop it.

Roll a ball back and forth. Sometimes it helps to have another adult or sibling behind the child to assist with this activity. After some rolls, wait and give your child the opportunity to anticipate the ball by looking at you or raising his hands.

Use animated voices and gestures during play or when looking at pictures in a book. On the flip side, an unexpected whisper will also draw the child’s attention.

Tickle Time! If your child likes tickles, this is a fun way to work on requesting or anticipating “more.” Similar to rolling a ball, pause to see if your child will pair his smile with eye contact prior to another few seconds of tickling.

Balloons! Aside from tossing a balloon back and forth, you can let the air out of it and watch as the balloon flies across the room. See who can find it first!

Tunnels! If you do not have a pop-up tunnel, create your own tunnel with pillows, chairs, blankets, etc. Follow each other as you crawl through! If your child is unsure of crawling in, try rolling a ball or car through the tunnel.”


We hope you found this resource on when to joint attention in children with autism useful. If you have any comments please let us know below.  

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