Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Do You See What I See? Joint Attention and Its Importance in Autism

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Do You See What I See? Joint Attention and Its Importance in Autism

Article excerpt

Logan and her mother are playing in the backyard one summer day when a butterfly lands on a flower nearby. Logan looks over at the butterfly, looks at her mother, and then points to the butterfly as if silently saying "Mom look at this!" Logan's mother then looks where she is pointing and says, "That is a beautiful butterfly, Logan!"

Logan's desire to share the experience of the butterfly with her mother constituted an episode of what researchers call the initiation of "joint attention." Joint attention involves the organization of attention between oneself, an object or event, and another person with the purpose of sharing interest. Simply put, joint attention requires a child to "socially coordinate the attention with other people." This initiating of joint attention (as opposed to responding to joint attention) is particularly important in understanding social and affective deficits in autism.

Sharing of interests begins at a very young age. When typically developing children are between the ages of six and nine months their behaviors become more goal directed. They learn that another person can be used to achieve goals, such as getting them the things that they want like food, toys, and attention. As they continue to grow, typically developing children begin to expand their ability to communicate. By eleven months they are alternating their gaze between an object and a communicative partner. An example of this would be when an adult holds up a puppet and makes it talk. The child will look at the puppet and then look at the adult to see what she is looking at and how she is reacting. The child will then turn his gaze back to the puppet. This shift in gaze from the puppet, to the adult holding the puppet, will continue throughout the interaction. At thirteen months children begin to point at objects to initiate joint attention and identify objects of interest, as in the example with Logan and the butterfly. Finally, at fifteen months children begin requesting and communicating with greater frequency.

Joint Attention and Autism

Autism is a disorder characterized by an impairment in communication and social interactions, and restricted and repetitive behaviors with symptoms beginning before the age of three. One of the criteria for being diagnosed with autism, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, is "a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest)" (APA, 2000, p. 75)." * These shared experiences are necessary to acquire language, and they are also facilitated by joint attention.

A lack of joint attention can help to discriminate children with autism from those with other developmental delays or from children with typical development. In contrast to typically developing children, those with autism engage in less pointing, eye gaze alternation, and showing of items to another person. Not all children with autism lack joint attention skills, but in the absence of intervention, many do. Researcher Connie Kasari and her colleagues at UCLA have conducted a randomized controlled trial in which joint attention and symbolic play interventions were compared. In this study, reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, both interventions were successful in producing expressive language gains and both were more effective than a control group that received no intervention. However, for children with the lowest level of language, joint attention intervention was more effective than the intervention involving symbolic play.

In addition to being associated with the development of language and communication, joint attention can be further understood within an information-processing model, where brain mechanisms for encoding information about the self and others are employed. This has been nicely explained by researchers Peter Mundy, Lisa Sullivan, and Ann Mastergeorge in a recent article in the journal, Autism Research. …

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