Joint attention is the ability to shift your attention between an object or event and your communication partner. For example, if a little girl notices an ice cream truck coming down the street, she may look at it, then turn to her father with a hopeful smile before turning back to stare at the ice cream truck. Or, a little boy may be spinning an empty water bottle on the floor, enjoying the movement and shifting colors as the bottle spins. He may look up at his mother and point to the bottle, sharing his enjoyment with her.
Many children with autism don’t develop joint attention skills on their own. Their parents often describe them as being “in their own world,” absorbed in playing with whatever has caught their attention, and seeming oblivious to everything else around them.
However, if children are only focusing on one thing at a time (typically an object rather than a person), they may be missing out on other things. They aren’t learning to communicate with others about shared experiences; or new vocabulary and concepts that they could if they were paying attention to others during a shared experience; or how to read facial expressions and understand gestures; or about other people’s emotions.
That’s why it’s so crucial to help kids with autism develop their joint attention skills. Studies show that young children’s joint attention skills greatly impact their future language skills.
To help kids learn how to shift their attention between an object/event and a person, here are some easy, fun ways to work on early joint attention skills:
Do goofy, unexpected actions with toys. For example, if they’re playing with Matchbox cars, take one that they’re not using, and pop it on your head. Tilt your head back as you dramatically pretend that you’re about to sneeze: “Aaah, aaah, aaah…” then suddenly pop your head down and let the car fall off into your lap as you “sneeze” with a loud “CHOO!” Then hand the car to the child.
Pretend to eat some of the child’s food. During snack or meal time, hold out your hand to ask for a little bit of food, then pretend to eat the food. Be very loud and exaggerated: “YUM YUM YUM YUM!!” while smacking your lips and making fake chewing sounds. Then hand the food back, intact, to the child.
Introduce toys that the child needs help with. Bubbles and balloons work great for this. Blow up a balloon, pinch it tight, and say, “Ready, set…GO!” and release the balloon. It will fly quickly around the room, making noise as the air is expelled. The child will typically not be able to blow up the balloon. Help them learn to give it to you. As you blow up the balloon again, blow slowly, waggle your eyebrows, and take breaks to hold out the balloon and admire it (“Wow! Look! It’s big!”) before continuing to blow it up. (Note: please make sure the child does not have a latex allergy before trying balloons.)
Remember, your goal is to show the child that you are just as fun and engaging as his toys. The more fun you are, the more readily the child will switch focus, back and forth, between the object and you.
There are many books that are good resources for learning more about how to develop joint attention skills. Here are two to get you started:
- “An Early Start for Your Child with Autism,” by Sally J. Rogers, Geraldine Dawson and Laurie A. Vismara
- “More Than Words: Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” by Fern Sussman
Chana Feinstein, M.A., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist at Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center.