Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object or each other . Joint attention on an object is achieved when one individual alerts another to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indication. An individual gazes at another individual, points to an object and then returns their gaze to the individual (3 point gaze). Each individual must understand that the other individual is looking at the same object and realize that there is an element of shared attention. The individual must display awareness that focus is shared between himself and another individual. If two individuals are simply looking at the same object, but not referencing each other, it is referred to as shared gaze. Shared gaze is the lowest level of joint attention. Joint attention between people is a conversation-like behavior that individuals engage in. Adults and infants engage in this behavior starting at two months of age. Adults and infants take turns exchanging facial expressions and sounds. The sole purpose of joint attention is to share an interesting object or experience with another person.
Joint attention is a necessary precursor skill for language and social-cognitive development. It is important for the development social referencing, language acquisition and learning through modeling behaviors of others around you and other, later-emerging, skills, such as more complex expressive language, symbolic play, and theory of mind.
Children with Autism Spectrum disorders have a particular difficulty in their social relationships. Children with Autism often demonstrate a lack of or delays in joint attention skills. Children with Autism are often more interested in and engaged by their own thoughts and sensations than by other people or even the outside world. Social connections are more difficult to build and understand for children with Autism. A lack of or a delay in joint attention skills can limit children’s ability to learn through imitation, develop play and social skills, and attend in a learning situation such as a classroom. Children with Autism who display more intact joint attention skills exhibit better outcomes with respect to the development of cognitive, language, and symbolic play skills. Joint attention skills have a vital role in the development of children with autism spectrum disorders. Joint attention skills can be taught and addressed in a number of therapy models and approaches.
-Brandi Quinsay, MA, CCC-SLP