Joint attention is a foundational skill for learning. Joint attention is a behavior where two people focus on an object or event, for the purpose of interacting with each other. With joint attention, a person is able to (non-verbally) communicate to another by using their eyes and looking at an object, and back at the other person. This shared moment fosters the development of social skills. Communication begins with joint attention. It’s how young children who aren’t speaking yet communicate with others.
Difficulty with joint attention is very common in young autistic children. If your student is not responding to your words or gestures (like pointing to something), they are likely experiencing issues with joint attention. The child may seem like they don’t hear or are ignoring what is said to them.
Joint attention is not the same as eye contact. We never want to force eye contact with autistic individuals. Autistic people have said that forced eye contact can increase anxiety. Some autistic adults report that it hurts. For others, it can “turn off” their other senses. For example, when they are forced to make eye contact, they can’t hear. We need to respect the input and experience that autistic adults are now sharing with us. Do not require eye contact.
Tip #1: Get On Their Level To Increase Joint Attention
If you want to elicit joint attention in children with autism, you need to get to their level. If they are lying on the floor on their stomach, that is what you need to do. Imagine a child on his stomach, pushing a toy train. Get down there and take a look at the view from his perspective. Don’t intervene or even say anything. Just observe. Over time he will get used to you being there and start to notice you. Make sure you do not take a toy or join in play yet. This can be really hard to do!
Tip #2: Imitate What The Child Does And Says
Once the child is comfortable with you hanging out at his level, you can imitate what he does. If he is spinning a plate, get down to his level and spin a plate next to him. When the child is on his stomach looking at trains, get on your stomach and push your train past his line of vision. If he makes noises, imitate those noises. If he says any words, imitate the words. This is important because you are entering HIS world. Without joint attention, autistic children may look like they are tuning us out. One of the first ways to get them to notice you is by imitating THEM.
Tip #3: Be Sure To Leave A Pause
You have observed and joined in the child’s play or favorite activities. Now it is time to develop some predictable routines to increase joint attention in your student with autism. You can do this with some of the activities they find interesting. If they like cars or trains, get a “tot tube” or ramp to roll them down. Get on their level, say “ready, set, GO!!” and put the vehicle down the ramp. See if they will give you the vehicle to communicate “do it again”. If not, take another car or train and do it again.
Do this over and over so this turns into a predictable routine. Say the same thing each time, “ready…set…GO!”. If they are enjoying the activity, you can continue and start to leave a pause after you say “ready…set”. At that point, look at them with an expectant face. Take a deep breath and open your mouth like you are about to say the word “go”. But wait. Will they reference you? If they look your way (whether they make eye contact or not), say “GO” and release the vehicle. Read more about some of these activities here.
This same routine can be done with a variety of toys. Some favorites in my classroom are:
Tip #4: Position Yourself Face To Face
Much like lying on the floor to be at the child’s level, being face-to-face is important. Being face-to-face gives the child a better chance of noticing your face. If you are really animated during “people play” games, there is a better chance the child will reference you. The Hanen Centre has a great booklet about people play. It is titled “Plan For People Play“. Some face-to-face games include:
- row, row, row your boat
- creep mouse
Tip #5: Repeat Joint Attention Activities
The last tip is to repeat all of these joint attention activities many times with your students with autism. We want to make them fun and predictable. In order to make them predictable, there needs to be a lot of repetition! Because joint attention is a foundational skill for learning, these activities are a priority in early childhood special education settings. Do these activities several times each day. Make sure to be thoughtful about having a variety of adults doing these activities with the children.
Be sure to download the Autism Classroom Guide and get the top 10 tips for supporting young autistic children in a self-contained classroom.