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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

Unlocking Connections: Exploring Joint Attention in Children with Autism

three children looking at nature with magnifying glasses

Once upon a time, in a bustling neighborhood, there lived three best friends, Lily,  Dylan and Alex.  One sunny afternoon, they decided to venture into the nearby woods to search for hidden treasures. As they wandered deeper into the forest, their eyes sparkled with excitement at the thought of discovering something extraordinary.


Suddenly, Lily spotted a shimmering object nestled among the foliage. "Look! What's that?" she exclaimed, pointing eagerly at the mysterious find.


Alex and Dylan followed Lily's gaze and gasped in amazement. "Wow, it's a beautiful crystal!" they exclaimed, their eyes widening with wonder.


Together, they carefully picked up the crystal and examined it, marveling at its sparkling colors. They shared a moment of awe and fascination, their attention completely captivated by the magical find.


Throughout their journey, the three friends constantly engaged in joint attention, pointing out interesting sights, sharing their thoughts and feelings, and reveling in the wonders of nature together. Their bond grew stronger with each shared moment, forging a friendship that would last a lifetime.


Joint attention refers to the ability to share attention with others towards a common object or event. Crucial joint attention skills are often delayed, limited, or missing in children with autism. This can impact their ability to connect with others and navigate social situations effectively.  Joint attention skills include:


mother pointing out art to child
  • Initiating Joint Attention: drawing someone's attention to an object or event by pointing, showing, or using gestures.

  • Responding to Joint Attention: following someone else's gaze, point, or gesture to share attention on an object or event.

  • Shifting Joint Attention: moving attention flexibly between different objects or events as directed by others.

  • Using Joint Attention for Communication: using joint attention to express wants, needs, interests, or to engage in social interaction; for example, pointing to an object they want.


Joint attention lays the foundation for communication development. By sharing attention with others, children learn to initiate and respond to social interactions, such as pointing, showing, and following someone else's gaze or gestures. This joint engagement in activities and conversations, creates opportunities to learn and strengthen language and communication.


happy father and child looking at each other

Joint attention also allows children to learn from others by observing their actions and reactions, as well as to engage in cooperative play and shared activities. Through joint attention, children with autism can develop social understanding, empathy, and perspective-taking skills, which are fundamental for building and maintaining relationships.


Finally, joint attention plays a vital role in academic learning, problem-solving, and adaptive functioning in everyday life. It helps children learn to focus and shift attention and follow directions.


It is important for you to know that lack of joint attention in an autistic child is not caused by anything a parent does or doesn’t do with a child. But is equally important to know that there are things that you can do to help your child develop joint attention. Here are some things you can do:


mother and child reading together
  • Reading Books: Sit with a child and read a book together. Point to pictures, ask questions, and discuss what you see on each page. This encourages the child to focus on the same thing as you and engage in shared attention.

  • Puzzle Play: Work on puzzles together, discussing the pieces and where they fit. This promotes joint focus on a task and collaboration.

  • Joint Attention Games: Play games that promote joint attention, such as "I Spy" or matching games. These games encourage children to attend to the same object or activity as others.

  • Building Blocks: Build structures together with blocks or Legos. Discuss what you're building and work together to create something.

  • Imaginative Play: Engage in pretend play scenarios such as playing house, restaurant, or doctor. Encourage the child to join in and play a role alongside you.

  • Nature Walks: Take a walk outside and explore nature together. Point out interesting things you see, like birds, trees, or flowers, and discuss them.

  • Board Games: Play board games that require turn-taking and cooperation. This encourages joint attention and social interaction.

  • Arts and Crafts: Create art projects together, such as painting, drawing, or crafting. Talk about what you're making and encourage the child to participate.

  • Music and Singing: Sing songs together, play musical instruments, or listen to music. Encourage the child to sing along or play an instrument with you.

  • Cooking or Baking: Cook or bake together, following a recipe and working together to create a dish. Talk about the ingredients and steps involved.

  • Watching and Discussing Videos: Watch educational videos or cartoons together and discuss what you see. Ask questions and encourage the child to share their thoughts.


daughter polishing dad's fingernails


Remember to be patient and supportive during joint attention activities. Let your child take the lead and participate at their own pace. Remember, joint attention is about connecting, so, above all else, have fun together!




Here are some resources with additional ideas!





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