I think joint attention is one area that is often forgotten about when it comes to working on deficit areas in our children with autism. That should not be the case because difficulties with joint attention can greatly hinder a child’s learning of language and social skills. If a child is not paying attention to the same object or activity that a teacher, parent, or peer is referencing then the chance for a successful teaching opportunity and communicative exchange is very low. I like to think about shared attention as “being on the same page” and children with autism may not have the skills to “turn to our page” so we need to both teach them those skills and “go to their page” when necessary to make a connection.
Ways to increase attention:
- Choose toys or topics that are of interest to the child – make note of which toys increase attention and provide opportunities for communication versus which toys trigger repetitive behaviors that can be a barrier to communication
- Follow the child’s lead when choosing toys or topics
- Imitate the child’s actions on objects, gross motor movements, or vocalizations to encourage a reciprocal interaction
- Follow the child’s eye gaze and use specific labels for the objects he is looking at
- Use visual and verbal prompts when necessary to gain the child’s attention
- When a child appropriately directs his attention to you or an object you are referencing reinforce immediately! – Either naturally (i.e. verbal praise, continuing the interaction) or artificially (i.e. giving tangible reinforcers)