Autistic children 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.
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.
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 attention 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.
How Do You Test Joint Attention?
Based on the vital role that joint attention 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?
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.
Play games that include taking turns. For example, passing a ball back and forth.
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.
Follow your kid’s lead and take part in their favorite activity.
The Bottom Line
A kid with a joint attention deficit may experience challenges with social skills, 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.