When a toddler points at something in their environment, our first reaction is to look at what they are pointing at. This is a form of initiating joint attention. Joint attention is an early-developing social-communicative skill in which two people use gestures and gaze to share attention with respect to objects, events, or a topic of interest. It involves the ability to gain, to maintain, and to shift attention. Joint attention acts as a referencing tool that uses shared eye gaze (visually focusing on the same thing) and/or gesture for communication. This skill plays a critical role in both social development and language development. The more a child points the greater the intention to engage in communication.
Some common examples of joint attention include:
Looking at books together
Showing a toy or piece or artwork
Pointing up in the sky to show you the airplane flying by
Pointing to show you something of interest in the environment
In typically developing children, joint attention generally starts to emerge around 9-12 months. If a child is not initiating bids for joint attention at 18-months you should consult a professional as a lack of joint attention is a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).Research has differentiated children with ASD, and other developmental disabilities based on joint attention.
Several skills are important for joint attention to occur. Not only do these skills help an individual to get their wants and needs met, but they are also necessary for appropriate interactions and meaningful relationships. Some of these skills include the following:
Orienting and attending to a social partner
Shifting gaze between people and objects
Sharing emotional states with another person
Following the gaze and point of another person
Being able to draw another person’s attention to objects or events for the purpose of sharing experiences
Specifically, many children with autism spectrum disorder exhibit the following challenges around joint attention:
Responding to eye contact of others
Following points from others
Shifting attention/gaze from toy to adult
Using declarative points
The good news is that it is possible to improve joint attention in autistic children and should be an early target of intervention programs, as joint attention is associated with better language outcomes, as well as higher outcomes in the areas of cognition, symbolic play, and social skills.
Some easy ways to encourage the development of joint attention and pointing include:
Face to Face Interaction at Your Child’s Level
A large part of joint attention and engagement includes eye contact. As adults it is easy for us to tower over our children making eye contact more challenging. If you have ever tried having a conversation while behind another person then you know first-hand how much more difficult it is to connect and have an interaction. By positioning our bodies in such a way that allows us to be face-to-face and nose to nose at our child’s level we are setting the occasion for improved engagement. We can position ourselves by laying on our stomachs when playing on the floor or seating our child in a child sized chair while we sit on the floor as needed to encourage an eye gaze shift between toys, objects and us.