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Joint Attention and Autism

What is Joint Attention?

Joint attention is when there is shared attention between two people and an object of reference. Often children with autism will focus mainly on the object. With joint attention, however, we are looking for that shift from the object to the other person. In doing so we are able to share something with that other person about the object and it can range from 'this is cool!' to 'I wonder what you think about this'. When the focus is shifted then we can share the experience with the other person and / or gain their perspective too. When a child learns that he or she can learn something from another person by co-experiencing together it is the meaning gained that is important. It is the triadic interaction between two people and an object that make joint attention an opportunity for meaningful engagement.

Joint attention emerges around 9 months and is typically well established by 18 months. It is a crucial skill to developing relationships and learning about the world, yet in autism is often missing or not well established.

What Joint Attention is not:

Looking at something at the same time by chance.

Looking at something in parallel with another person.

Following a gaze shift or a reference point.

Whilst these three things might appear to be something along the lines of joint attention, they are not. The factor that distinguishes true joint attention from the above situations is the ‘togetherness’, the engaged togetherness of attending to something and checking in with the other person that you are jointly engaged with to share the experience or gain further meaning and understanding together. Joint attention is more than doing something at the same time. It requires a level of connectedness, interest, understanding between two people. Joint attention is so special to human social development because it is the start of infants developing a deep connection with another person.

So where does that leave those with children who do not have joint attention emerging, yet?

Well this is what typically happens in the parent – child relationship; parents so desperately want that connection and joint attention that they may fall into any one of the following situations; expose your child to lots of situations where you are trying to gain their attention in the hope that it will lead to joint attention, eventually, like you probably have tried for a long time. Force your child to look by moving their head or instructing them to look or drill this repeated times a day in the hope that they will be conditioned to do it and eventually it will be natural! Be a little bit odd and wacky by putting things on your face or head or being over the top excited to draw attention to you.

Let’s understand how this would typically develop and then we will be in a better position to know what to do next. Joint attention naturally comes from an infants’ pure desire to want to connect with others and learn from the world around them. This growth seeking behaviour nurtures the benefits of joint attention and this continues to emerge, develop and grow. Note: that doesn’t mean if your child doesn’t ‘naturally’ have that pure desire (due to predisposition of autism or any other reason) that’s it – there’s no hope! The focus instead needs to shift and be about supporting that child to gain back the growth seeking so that joint attention among many other developmental learnings become more typically developing. But how do you ‘make’ a child become a growth seeker? You don’t ‘make’ a child become a growth seeker… you become a skilled and mindful guide and a more attuned growth provider for that individual child’s specific needs. If you need help with that the RDI® would be a perfect match for you to pursue, contact me at elisa@thinkautism.co.uk to arrange a time to discuss further.

Does your child demonstrate joint attention? Check by doing a few activities together to see if you get the regular gaze shifts through the interaction, you feel connected and you sense that your child is learning (not just about the object) but from you and your perspective, reaction and meaningful interaction.

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©2020 by Elisa Ferriggi