Years ago when my son was first diagnosed with autism, I heard the words “joint attention” and only had a vague idea of what it was all about. People told me to engage my child, share in activities, have fun, get silly, look at books with him, sing—all things any parent would do with any child. What I didn’t know then was what to look for and how to work on joint attention.
What is joint attention?
Joint attention is a social behaviour and a pivotal skill necessary for imitation, attention, reciprocation, play and language skills. Both the parent and the child share their attention on an object or an activity in the environment and in typically developing children, you will begin to see this between 9 and 15 months of age. It is important to develop as it encourages the value of interaction with people. Joint attention can take two forms: responding and initiating joint attention. In responding to joint attention, the parent is looking for the child’s attention to a particular object or activity. For example the parent says: “Look at the kitty!” and the child alternates his or her gaze from the cat in the room to the parent and back to the cat. This is shared attention, where the gaze alternation could occur several times while the two are looking at the cat. With initiating joint attention, it is the child who makes a bid for the parent’s attention by pointing to, indicating (through gestures, vocalizations or words) or showing something of high interest and checks in with the parent to see if the enjoyment is mutual.
How do I work on joint attention?
Much depends on your child or learner’s preferences. Joint attention can be as simple as you activating the buttons on a toy and the child looks to you with a look that says “do it again! That was fun!” or you can indicate an expected response in a book (“there’s the pig. A pig says “oink, oink”) to show the child something you know is of interest to him or her (“Look! Arthur is riding his bike with Buster” as you watch an episode of Arthur). Your response should always suggest the fun of the shared moment with encouraging looks, comments and repetition of the action or a similar one. You know you have it when your child or learner practically begs you for your attention by looking at you expectantly, by pointing to the object of interest and seeing if you are paying attention too. You should create several moments like this throughout the day: during play, at bath, bed time, during meals. It’s a great way to make momentary connections with the child and it’s a pivotal skill for promoting communication and language.
Remember, a look is worth a thousand words. When the look comes through joint attention, it just feels like magic!