Joint Attention Issues - Hidden Talents ABA

Joint Attention Issues in Autistic Children

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August 10, 2022 Joint Attention Issues in Autistic Children

Children with autism spectrum disorder and those with developmental delays tend to experience challenges with joint attention. 

If you've been wondering how you can help a child with a joint attention deficit, then don’t worry. You'll know how by the time you're done reading this article. 

Child with toys | Joint Attention

What Is Joint Attention? 

Joint attention (JA) involves sharing a united focus on something with another person for the purpose of interacting with each other. The object of focus could be other people, objects, events, or concepts. 

While engrossed in joint attention, you can communicate non-verbally, for example, by gazing at an object and then looking at the other individual. 

Joint attention starts in infancy and develops throughout early childhood, and the first instances usually involve a child and their parents. These moments happen when the child and the parent switch their attention and eye contact back and forth from an item to one another.

Some early joint attention abilities may include a child looking on the same book page as their parent or reaching out to an adult for a lift. Advanced joint attention skills may include the child's ability to focus on a game or request food, toys, or other items. 

What Are Examples of Joint Attention?

Joint attention in toddlers may occur in two ways: spontaneous initiations and responses to the actions of other people. In most cases, it involves the use of eye contact, gestures like finger-pointing, and vocalizations, such as spoken words. 

The toddler can initiate social interaction. For instance, they can draw their parent's attention to a toy by pointing at it and gazing at their parent. Both the parent and the child maintain eye contact in this case. 

Older kids may use vocalizations to attract attention. For example, "Hey, Mom, check this out."

The child may also respond to joint attention initiated by another person. For instance, a parent uses a gesture (finger pointing) toward a toy and says, "Check out the toy!" The toddler reacts by following the parent's finger to gaze at the toy.

An image illustrating joint attention

Establish joint attention

Joint attention typically occurs in two ways:

  1. Responding to Joint Attention (RJA): This happens when a child follows the gaze or pointing gesture of another person to look at the same object or event. For example, if a parent looks at a toy and the child follows their gaze to also look at the toy, that's responding to joint attention.
  2. Initiating Joint Attention (IJA): This involves the child using eye contact, gestures, or other means to direct someone else's attention to an object or event. For example, a child might point at a bird and look at their parent to ensure the parent is also looking at the bird. That's initiating joint attention.

Both types of joint engagement are crucial for social and language development as they involve sharing a common focus with someone else and understanding that others have a perspective that can be shared.

Joint attention plays a crucial role in language development in children. Here's why it's important:

Why Is Joint Attention Important?

You find more joy when you share your experiences with another person. The same applies to kids as they experience the sights and sounds of their immediate environment. A child, for example, may respond to a sound by gazing at the source and then looking at you with a smile.

You can also initiate joint engagement by pointing at a particular object and looking at the toddler. The child will consequently realize that grownups wish to share attention with them. Such interactions emphasize the back-and-forth activity needed for communication skills.

Kids must repeatedly interact with you first before they can listen to what you're saying. With time, through consistent listening and responding to your words, they connect meaning to your words and thus grasp what you're saying.

If your child is experiencing delayed language skills, then there's a higher chance that they lack consistent interaction. Here is an illustration to show how kids develop speech-language skills via joint attention:

  • Interaction reinforces listening.
  • Listening contributes to understanding language.
  • Language understanding leads to the use of the language itself.
  • Using language, including facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact, encourages talking.

That being said, it is crucial to assess joint attention skills in your child early enough and design early interventions in case of deficits.

kids | Why Joint Attention Important?

How Do You Test Joint Attention?

Based on the vital role that joint engagement g plays in social-language skill development, it is essential to test joint attention skills in children early. The goal is to identify any joint attention challenges and establish early intervention. 

There are structured measures that offer a measurement of joint attention. A typical example is the Early Social Communication Scales (ESCS).

ESCS assesses a child's reaction to semi-structured prompts. The metrics for the JA behaviors include frequencies or proportions of instances in which tested behaviors are observable. 

The frequency of the experimenter's solicitation to which the toddler responds is the metric for measuring response to joint attention. For example, you could say, "Look" or point at a toy, and in response, the child turns their head or shifts their eyesight toward your pointed finger.

The metric for initiating joint attention reflects the regularity with which a toddler uses eye contact and finger-pointing to draw attention to ongoing events or objects. A child starts to develop joint attention through eye gazing as early as 4-6 months.

There are several interventions that are available if your child shows signs of joint attention deficit. Read on for more insight.

How Do You Improve Joint Attention?

Here are some way to improve and teach joint attention to children:

Face-to-face Interaction

Frequent interaction with your child is one of the best ways to help them develop joint attention. For example, you could get on the ground with them and have face-to-face interaction with eye contact.

Encourage Response to a Solicitation

Point to your kid's favorite toy and say, "Look," while pointing at it. Then, gently turn their head to look at the toy. When they make eye contact with the toy, hand it to them to play with it. 

Cause and Effect Games

Get toys they like that feature a cause-and-effect relationship. Wind-up or light-up toys are a good example.

Building blocks symbolzing step by step improving joint attention

Practice Turn-taking

Play games that include taking turns. For example, passing a ball back and forth.

Bubble Blowing

Blowing bubbles is an activity that allows you to interact with your child. Take a break from blowing to let your kid look at you or request extra bubbles. 

Show Responsiveness

Follow your kid's lead and take part in their favorite activity.

Joint Attention and Autism

Studies reveal that joint attention is often impaired in children with autism. They may struggle to follow someone else's gaze or pointing gesture, and they may not respond when their attention is directed to a particular object or event. This difficulty can hinder their social communication skills and language development, as joint attention plays a crucial role in learning about the world and understanding the perspectives of others.

Children with autism also tend to have trouble initiating joint attention. They might not point at things to show interest or share joy, which are common ways that young children engage with others. These challenges can lead to a sense of isolation and difficulties in forming connections with peers.

Nurturing Joint Attention

Interventions targeting joint attention skills can be beneficial for children with autism. Here are some strategies that can help:

  1. Engage in Play: Use toys or activities that your child finds interesting to capture their attention. Play alongside them and try to direct their focus to the toy by pointing or gazing at it.
  2. Follow Their Lead: If your child shows interest in a certain object, use this as an opportunity to foster joint attention. Comment on the object, point to it, or look at it to encourage your child to do the same.
  3. Use Visual Cues: Visual cues like pointing can help guide your child's attention. Over time, they may start to understand that these gestures are a way of directing focus.
  4. Practice Turn-Taking Games: Simple games such as 'peek-a-boo' or 'pass the ball' can teach children about shared attention and interaction.
  5. Seek Professional Help: Speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and special education professionals can provide targeted interventions to improve joint attention skills.

In conclusion, while joint attention can be a challenge for individuals with autism, with consistent practice and professional support, improvements can be made. Enhancing joint attention skills can pave the way for better social interactions and communication, enriching the lives of those with autism.

A kid smiling | Nurturing Joint Attention

The Bottom Line

A kid with a joint engagement deficit may experience challenges with social interaction, language development, and general cognitive development. These difficulties may negatively affect their quality of life. 

Luckily, there are several interventions that can significantly improve or even eliminate joint attention problems in autistic children.