Joint attention occurs between two people who share an interest in an object or an event and there is an understanding between the two that they are both interested in the same object or event. The emergence of joint attention is usually seen around 9 months of age and is well established by the age of 18 months.1 Young children’s ability to engage others and communicate socially using non-verbal cues such as pointing, smiling, and eye contact is crucial to the development of social and language skills.2
Joint attention involves “a variety of behaviors including gaze following (following the direction of a person’s eye movements as a cue to reference), social referencing (looking at another individual to share an experience), joint engagement (looking at a stimulus, then at another person to include them in the social experience), and imitation (copying the motor moves or vocalizations of another).” These behaviors are essential for learning language effectively and learning to connect with others in the social realm.3
There are two categories of joint-attention behaviors: responding to the bids of others or initiating the attention of others. Responding to joint attention refers to the infant’s ability to follow the direction of the gaze and gestures of others in order to share a common reference point. Initiating joint attention requires an infant’s use of gestures and eye contact to direct another’s attention to objects, events, or themselves.4
Responding is easier than initiating. When a parent looks at, points to, and identifies an object, the child will respond by following the parent’s gaze and point and look at the object. Around 12 to 14 months of age, the child will begin to alternate his gaze between the object and the parent to confirm they are both still focusing their attention on the same object. When a child initiates the joint attention, social motivation is involved. The child wants to get the parent’s attention to share the experience of seeing the object with him.5
This social-cognitive concept of joint attention proposes that as infants represent their own goal-related intentional activity, they also monitor the goal-related behavior of others. They come to understand that if self-intentions lead to goal-related behavior, then goal-related behavior in others must follow from their intentions. This is expressed as understanding that “where my eyes go, my behavior follows” and “where others’ eyes go, their behavior follows.” When an infant gains control of the direction of his gaze and can affect the behavior of others through his gaze, he becomes aware of his ability to use his own self-intentioned actions.6
Children with autism have difficulty following another person’s gaze and their joint attention skills are lacking. A child may be able to point to an object he wants and be able to shift his gaze to a parent’s face and then back to the object, but his purpose is non-social and he is simply requesting what he wants. In contrast, the purpose of focusing on an object to show it to someone else is a social one, and children with autism are not interested in this type of social interaction.7
As parents have become more aware of childhood developmental stages, red flags often lead to early autism diagnosis. Lacking skills in joint attention is one of these indicators of autism. Early intervention programs have shown that advances can be made in increasing social communication of young children with autism.8
Research is showing that strategies offered to help children with autism develop joint attention and social referencing are most effective if they are less structured and more naturalistic in approach through play and interaction with their parents or other adults who are most important in their lives. These strategies include having the parents focus on developing the skills of their young children to look at faces and develop eye contact, to play with others and take turns, to point, to shift their attention from what they are playing with to what the parent has, and to initiate a request for the parents to look at something that interests them.9
- 1. “Joint Attention and Social Referencing.” Infant & Toddler Connection of Virginia. < http://www.infantva.org/documents/CoPA-Nov-JointAttentionSocialRefer.pdf > 24 July 2017.
- 2. “Do You See What I See?” Autism Speaks. < https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/do-you-see-what-i-see > 24 July 2017
- 3. Singer, Dorothy G., Robert Michnick Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Editors. Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2006. p. 234.
- 4. Mundy, Peter and Lisa Newell. “Attention, Joint Attention, and Social Cognition.” PubMed Central. U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2663908/ > 24 July 2017.
- 5. Op. cit., “Joint Attention and Social Referencing.”
- 6. Op. cit., Mundy, Peter and Lisa Newell.
- 7. Op. cit., “Joint Attention and Social Referencing.”
- 8. Op. cit., “Do You See What I See?”
- 9. Op. cit., “Joint Attention and Social Referencing.”