Developing Joint Attention
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Developing Joint Attention

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Joint attention skills what are they and how can we facilitate those?

Most of us want to make friends, connect with others and bond with a friend or be part of a community. To do so we need to develop an important social skill which is: initiating, responding to, and maintaining ‘shared/joint attention’ with another. When we can do this, we are able to focus on the same thing with another person or a group of people: music, hobbies, sport, art, books, toys, games or memories: remember when we did x y z…

Many children who struggle with speech and language development are not able to share or hold attention with another person very easily. My latest blog is all about what we can do to help our children develop Joint Attention.

So to re-cap, joint or shared attention happens when one person gets the other’s attention by either words, or gestures like pointing to something and saying ‘OMG look over there!’ – both people look at that same thing.

What does it take to have or develop this skill?

We need to first of all find something of interest that captivates our own attention. This part is usually not difficult for most people or children.

Then, crucially, we need to direct our focus away from what we find interesting, for long enough to get another person’s attention onto the same topic. This could be just seconds or it could be longer if we are very determined and good at embracing others into our experience. But if we are not then it must not take longer than seconds!

Let me give an example: if someone is in the room with me whilst I see something strange out the window, I would take that second to draw their attention to it. However, I might not be bothered to run upstairs and find someone only to show them something odd outside in the road. If I am very bored, I might do! But as I am rarely bored it is unlikely. So, unless someone else is right here with me, they are not going to be part of that particular experience, I would not share it.

Back to our child: if we make it difficult for a child who is not naturally inclined to share an interest then it is not going to happen. We must be ready, and right there for our child to have that fleeting second to look at us before returning to their hobby/interest.

This skill ‘to share a moment’ tends to develop around 12 months of age and starts with a child pointing to things. Prior to that, our child might give us something or come to show us a thing. Joint attention underpins language skills and is strong predictors of later language development (Law et al, 2017).

What are the signs that my child is struggling with Joint Attention?

  • Tunes out or does not respond when I call their name
  • Cannot follow my suggestions for games or toys/play activities
  • Does not point to anything of interest, like a truck passing by, or an aeroplane in the sky
  • Ignores or does not respond to what I say, does not follow instructions, only when he/she wants to

What can I do to help with this?

Here are some ideas you can follow in no particular order – see which one sticks:

  1. Get down to your child’s eye/face level, we call it ‘face to face’. It does not require your child to make eye contact with you but they might just do so more easily if you are ‘just there’ and don’t have to crook their neck to look up at you. When reading a book with your child, instead of sitting behind try sitting opposite him/her.
  2. Mirror play – making funny faces together in a mirror can be fun.
  3. COPY your child: top tip!! Imitate your child’s vocalisations and actions. Even if these are repetitive, just enjoy the ride.
  4. Follow your child and let your child take the lead in the play activity. What does that look like? The adult has no agenda, does not want to teach, to ask questions (see point number 9) does not want to direct or show the child how to ‘do it better/differently’ – instead accept that the child is the boss when it comes to their play and take their lead in how a toy should be played with.
  5. Hold up objects to your face or at eye level so that your child can see your face and the item at the same time.
  6. Be the ‘funniest thing’ in the room; be hugely entertaining, watchable and offer the ‘irresistible invitation’ to look at you or play with you.
  7. Offer PEOPLE TOYS (any toy where another person is needed to have fun) so: wind-up toys, bubbles, anything that needs opening or holding or doing which is tricky for the child to do alone. I always try and hide the buttons that make something ‘go’ so that my child needs to come back to me for ‘more/again’.
  8. Do PEOPLE GAMES – as above really but games that do not need a toy, that need another person to have fun: being swung round, row row the boat, being pushed on a swing etc.
  9. REDUCE ASKING QUESTIONS – this is my favourite top tip!!! Instead of asking lots of questions try and make simple statements/comments on what is happening so there is absolutely no pressure on your child to ‘perform’. Equally, silence is actually golden sometimes! An odd bit of advice from a speech therapist? Try sitting with your child, next to them or opposite and just don’t talk but simply BE… yes easier said than done, I do know this. Turn off your phone (OMG did I just say that!?) yes, please turn it off and just be with your child for a little while, just like a comfy buddy who is just enjoying their company with no agenda. You might be very surprised how your child suddenly seeks you out!

I will write about more ideas on this in my next blog so look out for more play ideas to encourage Joint Attention.

Most important, try and have fun with your child. Think about what is fun for her or him. And make it EASY for your child, remember unless you are ‘right there’ it might not happen so easily.

Happy New Year!

If you need help with your child, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

Joint Attention For Children With Autism

Joint Attention For Children With Autism

Kids Speech Therapist London

Why is joint engagement important for communication development?

It has been well-documented that the development of joint attention is impaired in children who have social communication difficulties or autism. It is, in fact, this impairment which distinguishes children with ASD from children who have other developmental delays.

A lack of joint attention in very young children is an early sign of autism as it is a signal that there is a disruption in the motivation to connect socially with others. Since this is a crucial element, I thought I would outline what we mean by Joint Attention as supported by the research undertaken at

In typically developing children, the ability to shift attention between a person and an object for the purposes of connecting socially or for requesting develops around the same time. However, for children with ASD, these components emerge one at a time and in a linear fashion. Children with ASD usually start with requesting something and later they may learn to share attention for social sharing. (see pattern below as a general guide).

As with typical development, there is variation in the order that these skills emerge but the following patterns of development is commonly seen:

  • Reaching, taking adult’s arm/hand or pointing to ask for something — but without looking at the adult
  • Gradually alternating looking between person and object of desire
  • Then learning to follow the point of another — which is responding to joint attention initiated by another
  • Directing attention to share interests — without looking at the adult: pointing to a truck on the road/ helicopter circling above
  • Then directing attention to share interest by alternating gaze shift between person and object — here the child is now initiating joint attention.

What is important to note is that in order to fulfil the criteria for true joint attention, the purpose of directing the attention of another person must be social in nature. In other words, it must not be exclusively to obtain a desirable object or event/action. True Joint Attention is seen verbally or non-verbally; we want to share a thought with another person and direct them to something we are interested or excited or spooked by.

For example: we can see an amazing firework display in the distance and we want to quickly direct our friend’s attention to this. In order to do this we might be tugging their sleeve/arm whilst pointing to the display in the distance, and perhaps we might add “wow look over there!” We are doing so simply to share an interest without obtaining anything, we are just being social with each other. So True Joint Attention is not just looking at what we want to have, then look at the person who can get this for us and then point to the item. We can say that this is the precursor to true joint attention, which is purely social in nature.

Because true joint attention is an essential precursor to typical language development, the absence of joint attention in children with ASD contributes to difficulties with language learning. Beuker, K., Rommelse, N., Donders, R. & Buitelaar, J. (2013).

The Hanen programme for Parent Child Interaction teaches parents of children with Social Communication Difficulties step by step how to enable their children to learn to pay attention to an object and the parent at the same time.

We learn how to enable a child to:

  • engage take turns
  • shift eye gaze between toy and adult
  • copy adult’s actions, gestures and then words
  • play with toys in different, new ways
  • interact and for longer periods of time
  • have fun whilst playing

If you would like to know more about the Hanen programme please get in touch. I look forward to exploring the topic with you and help guide you forward if this is something your child is struggling with.

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.