How To Build Joint Attention?

By Kate
Behaviour Support

Strategies to Teaching Children with Autism for Enhancing Joint Attention Skills

Joint attention involves two individuals attending an event or object with the purpose of sharing an interaction.
An onset predictor of autism in children is the difficulty with establishing and maintaining joint attention abilities. Joint attention involves using gestures, eye contact, or other forms of communication to share the experience of an object or event along with another person. It plays a crucial role in the development of play, social and language interaction. Thus, interventions to boost joint attention in children with autism can help to develop these other key skills.

The ability to appropriately link words to features, events, and objects are learned through parent facilitation along with gestural feedback and attending behavior. This is achieved through establishing joint attention which typically develops at age 6- 9 months.
Children who have autism may have serious deficits in developing joint attention skills as well as social referencing.

The Significance of Joint Attention for Children with Autism

The capability to attend to an event or object at the same time along with another individual is a vital pre-communication ability. Joint attention is a requirement for imitation. A child’s ability to copy or imitate their parent impacts their language and skill acquisition. Children understand to speak by repeating the words and the sounds which they hear. If they can’t attend to something along with their parents, they lack the natural inclination to copy what they see or hear. That can cause the development of other communication abilities to be delayed.

In children who don’t establish this skill natural yearly practice and intervention may be needed.

Methods to Enhance Joint Attention

Several therapeutic techniques, such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, applied behaviour analysis and physical therapy can support children with autism develop joint attention skills. Each of them starts with the concept that genuine joint attention only happens when both parties are motivated to pay attention to the same object/ toy.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) teaches children to establish joint attention a structured way initially with the aim of working on this behaviour in a more natural setting once a level of competence has been established. A child may be taught to follow a therapist gesture point to another object in the room initially and then asked to get an object by their parent at home e.g. getting a book from the shelf or a cup from the counter.

An occupational therapist’s programme builds on joint attention skills through each activity that is completed e.g. in fine motor tasks – writing, threading, in gross motor activities e.g. attending to the therapist model of an action and imitating them.
Play and developmental therapies such as floor time and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) have also been shown to be effective4.

How To Build Joint Attention Skills?

- Use cause effect toys - When your child does something to an object – a touch, a press, a throw, something will occur as a result. You might need to prompt this skill in the early stages for your child.
- Use an animated tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions to establish your child’s joint attention skills.
- Imitating you and other children in activities can help your child learn in the future. Imitation builds the foundation for future learning e.g. learning how to build a tower, learning how to imitate a sound or word. Imitation is a crucial step in establish new skills.
- If your child doesn’t imitate you - take the lead and copy him or her. Copy what he or she is doing with objects and toys, imitate his or her movements and sounds. Observe your child and see if they recognize that you’re imitating him or her.
- What does your child enjoy playing with the most? Use the items that engages their interest e.g. a child who enjoys playing with teddy- can you ‘make teddy jump’- then ask your child to follow your lead.
- Make one child the class leader- this child has to point to the class calendar/ whiteboard or the class schedule during morning circle time.
- Blow bubbles and have your child pop the bubbles – this works on joint attention skills and using an isolated finger point- two important skills that can support communication development.
- Rolling a ball to one another- can your child follow the ball as it rolls between the two of you?
- Completing shared activities together e.g. taking turns in building a Mr. Potato Head Toy or a puzzle involves focusing on the same activity together until it’s completed.
- Give your child lots of praise for following your lead in joint attention activities. Make it clear to them why you are praising them e.g. ‘well done for catching the ball’ ‘well done for finding the bubble and popping it!’

If you have concerns about your child’s joint attention skills seeking the assistance of a professional can help in developing a motivating programme for your child. The aim of this programme is to build a strong foundation for your child enabling them to develop further communication, play and social skills.

1 Wu C.C. and C.H. Chiang, The development sequence of social-communicative skills in young children with autism: a longitudinal study. 2013. NCBI.

2 Weitlauf AS., McPheeters ML, and Peters B, Therapies for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Behavioral Interventions Update. 2014. NCBI.

3 Dube W.V., MacDonald R.P.F., Mansfield R.C., Holcomb W.L.,and Ahearn W.H., Toward a behavioral analysis of joint attention. 2004. NCBI.

4 Relationship Development Intervention and Autism. 2017. Research Autism.


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