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“I don’t have any friends.” When you hear your child with autism say these words after confessing their loneliness from a lack of friends, it shatters your heart. Don’t lose hope. Read on to understand joint attention in autism and learn strategies to help your children better connect with others. 

What is joint attention?

Have you ever wanted to share something with a friend? Maybe it was a new purchase or that Netflix show that just dropped. Joint attention is your ability to share your interest with your friend and have them understand that you are both focused on that specific object or area. 

Joint engagement is a critical skill for people with autism to learn because it helps them connect better with the world around them and understand what interests others have. 

People with ASD that have not developed the building blocks for joint attention often struggle with communication, language development, and social relationships. The excellent news is that joint attention can be learned. Let’s further define what joint attention is by looking at some examples.

Examples of joint attention?

Wherever you look in social settings, you can find examples of joint attention. Some examples of this critical skill are:

  • Two people looking in the same direction and discussing what they see 
  • Two friends pointing at something and then sharing their responses 
  • One person engaging another by pointing out an object or activity or offering a toy or item to share

Two people can establish intentional joint engagement in one of two ways. Let’s take a look.

How can joint attention occur?

Joint attention doesn’t just happen by itself; it must be initiated between two people by: 

Initiating joint attention

To mutually agree to focus on the same thing, children can invite one another through:

  • Eye contact. One child looks at the other person, and the other responds by looking back.
  • Gestures. A child can point or wave to initiate joint attention between two people. 
  • Verbal communication. Using words to indicate what one is interested in or wants to share with another person is a way to initiate joint attention and understand each other better. 

Once these three elements of initiating joint engagement are established, it’s essential for both people involved in a conversation or activity to keep their focus on the same thing for an extended period.

Extending the invitation to observe the same thing simultaneously is only half the battle. The invitee must also indicate their acceptance of this request.

Responding to Joint Attention

A response is necessary for joint engagement to occur. A child must be able to recognize their friend’s efforts to get their attention and agree to participate in the activity. People can acknowledge their wish to focus on the object or area using the three methods listed above: eye contact, gestures, or verbal communication.

So what exactly makes the ability to initiate or respond to joint attention so important?

Why is joint attention important?

Joint attention is the foundation that many other cognitive and social skills are based on, such as: 

  • Understanding and participating in conversations 
  • Recognizing and responding to facial expressions 
  • Interacting with peers, family members, and other people 
  • Learning new concepts such as counting or shapes

Joint attention is a vital part of early development that allows children to connect with their environment. It also helps them understand what other people are doing, which can be especially important for individuals with ASD. 

In order for someone on the autism spectrum to fully participate in social interactions, they need to be able to direct and sustain their focus on an object or activity while attending to the same thing as another person.

So, we know that mutual engagement is a critical skill for children to learn and is especially vital for children on the spectrum. The next question is, how can we teach joint attention to our kids? The first step is to break down the skills required to learn it.

Skills needed for joint attention

For shared focus to occur, both people must possess these skills:

  • Orientation and attending. Orientation refers to the ability of a child to look towards another person or object that has drawn their interest or curiosity, such as when someone points at something they want the child to look at. Attending is when an individual focuses on something they are looking at, such as an object or another person’s face.
  • Ability to shift their gaze. When two people mutually engage, they usually shift their gaze between each other and whatever object of interest they share. This gaze shifting helps them stay focused on the same topic and allows them to exchange information about it. 
  • Conveying emotional state. One essential aspect of joint attention is being able to read non-verbal cues from others to interpret their emotional states. For example, if someone else is feeling excited and wants to share that excitement with you, they may smile or make eye contact. Understanding these non-verbal cues is an integral part of joint focus.
  • Following the gaze and point of another. To focus on something with another person, you must be able to follow their eyes and their gestures as they point to the object of interest. 

All these skills come together to enable a person to direct another person’s focus to a thing or event for the sole intent of sharing the experience. Without these subsets of skills, joint attention is not possible.

How to encourage joint attention

There are many ways you can help your child with ASD in their efforts to create a social connection with others. Here are a few:

Help them focus on faces and develop eye contact

Eye contact is the socially acceptable behavior for people to engage with each other. By looking at someone during a conversation, you can pick up many social cues and understand the conversation more clearly. 

Making eye contact can be uncomfortable for kids on the spectrum, so if you have a therapist, ask them if this is a reasonable goal.

Play games involving turn taking

Through these games and practices, kids can increase their communication skills by learning when taking turns talking or participating in activities is appropriate. They also learn to recognize cues from others that indicate it is their turn and offer cues themselves when they would like another’s turn.

As with any type of training, start small, with short sessions, then increase the time for the games or activities when your child seems comfortable.

Do mutual activities

By completing a puzzle or role-playing with their LOL dolls, you can help your child learn to pay attention to and interact with their environment. It also helps them understand how to share an experience with another person and become more engaged in meaningful conversations. 

 

Practice shifting attention

Make a regular practice of asking your child to shuttle their attention from whatever they are doing to what you are doing or what you have, then back. We know it’s another task to add to your already long list of extra things your child needs, but we guarantee it will pay off in the long run.

Cartoon it up

If you’re having trouble getting your child to focus on you, try going the extra mile with funny voices, animated facial expressions, or dramatic gestures. Not only will it help gain their attention, but it will give you both a much-needed giggle!

Common milestones are opportunities

Use everyday actions such as tying your shoes or bubble blowing to work on your kiddo’s ability to focus on what you’d like to focus on and shift their attention from you to the task and back.

You can also incorporate attentional practice into your child’s daily activities, like hair brushing, getting dressed, or brushing their teeth.

Follow their lead

Believe it or not, your child is listening to you. We know sometimes it feels like they aren’t, but we promise it’s true. A 2014 study found that the more receptive parents were to interactions, the more often their children initiated those reactions.

There were a few stipulations that had to be met for this to happen, though:

  • Let your child pick what they want to do
  • Make sure you respond to your kid’s signals
  • Don’t take charge (I know, this is a hard one for parents)
  • Keep it easy, breezy, lemon squeezy (in other words, be positive and make it super fun)

Follow these rules, then follow your child’s lead. If you notice they seem engaged with an object, copy their behavior and actions and make enthusiastic comments.

Heap praise on them

This should go without saying, but notice when your child with ASD initiates or responds to invitations for engagement. The type of praise matters; be specific about what you are happy about, such as “ great job building that tower out of those blocks!”

Now that you know how to encourage joint attention, here are some great ideas to promote it. 

Play activities that promote joint attention

Any fun, safe play activity and ABA therapy can be an opportunity to develop mutual engagement skills. Of course, anything to do with your child’s special subject of interest is likely to draw the most enthusiasm, but here are some other ideas:

  • Rolling a ball or car
  • Tossing a bean bag or ball back and forth
  • Rolling objects back and forth inside a cardboard tray or box
  • Hanging a ball on an elastic and batting it to and fro
  • Play hockey by using straws to blow feathers or ping-pong balls back and forth
  • Bang away at a keyboard with your child (actual music is optional)
  • Sing action songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
  • Hold hands and dance to your child’s favorite songs
  • Play the parachute game by using a sheet or blanket and rocking or bouncing toys, teddy bears, dolls, or balls inside it
  • Play tug of war (always advisable to let them win at first)

We’re sure you can come up with many more ideas! The most important thing to remember is you can help your child with ASD develop better joint attention skills through simple play and practice. We know you’ve got this, mama! (or dada)

Time to pay attention to joint attention

Mutual engagement is a vital part of social development for children with ASD and can be developed through simple activities. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, remember that even though nurturing joint attention takes a little extra patience and dedication, the rewards are well worth it. 

 With support from family, friends, educators, and healthcare professionals, we know you can build positive relationships with your child with autism while creating an environment that promotes healthy growth and development for the entire family.

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