Paying Attention to Attention
When young children learn language, they rely greatly on a skill that most of us don’t even realize we have: joint attention.
You are using joint attention when you read a book with your daughter, or when your son points out his toy zebra and the two of you look at it together – joint attention is when two or more people use eye gaze, sometimes with a gesture, to share attention on the same thing at the same time.
Children start building their joint attention skills early in infancy as they learn how to interact with the world around them. As these skills develop, children become more socially aware of their communication partners. Joint attention gives children opportunities to learn language, social communication, pretend play, and perspective-taking. It is a necessary tool in sharing information and experiences with other people. Importantly, this is a skill that children with autism tend to have a good deal of difficulty with.
How can we help children with autism improve their joint attention skills?
A study was recently published in the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders that analyzed the results of sixteen other studies that all tested the effectiveness of interventions geared at improving joint attention in children with autism. All of these interventions involved the use of individualized goals and goal selection based on the child’s needs, but they also differed in several respects, including the type of intervention they used, the length of treatment, and whether the interventionist was the parent. The goal for this study was to find the overall best way to teach joint attention skills in children with ASD. The researchers looked at all the interventions to see how they differed and whether or not these differences had an effect on the children’s joint attention skills.
This study came to two main conclusions. First, all the interventions had very similar outcomes: across the board, children’s joint-attention skills increased. Second, no one strategy was clearly more beneficial than another. What this means is that interventions targeting joint attention have consistently shown themselves to be effective at their stated goal. This also means a clear best strategy hasn’t yet been identified.
Then what does this really tell us?
Although we don’t know what is the most effective and efficient method for teaching joint attention skills, this convergence of evidence makes a stronger statement than any individual study, showing that we do know that if joint attention is directly targeted, children will reap the benefits, opening the door for growing social skills and language.
You can initiate joint attention at home by playing games or participating in activities that require turn-taking, such as building a sandcastle or rolling a ball back and forth. You can show, point, or give objects to your child and dedicate time to sharing that experience with them.
Murza, Kimberly A., Jamie B. Schwartz, Debbie L. Hahs-Vaughn, and Chad Nye. (2016). “Joint Attention Interventions for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders.