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Attention: Critical Foundation to Building Communication Skills

Photos by Sincy Paul. 

One of the foundational skills needed for communication development is attention.  Attention can be broken down into different categories.  

The three broad categories that Patten and Watson (2011) categorized attention into are the following:

  1. Orienting attention: physically adjusting to a stimulus. Ex: gaze shift or head turn.
  2. Sustaining attention: maintaining attention to a stimulus.  
  3. Shifting attention: disengaging from one stimulus and reorienting to a new stimulus. Ex: look at a toy and then look at another stimulus (person or object).

In the case of young children with autism, these three components are important because it makes the framework for Joint attention. Joint attention is “shared attention between two individuals and an object or another individual.” (Patten, 2011).  

Joint attention is critical for developing strong communication skills and is also used to predict later developing skills. In fact, research has shown that children with autism have difficulty with joint attention. Specifically, they have decreased ability to orient to environmental stimuli and shift attention by disengaging from one stimulus and reorienting to a new stimulus.  

Thus, when helping a child with autism, the above components need to be addressed.

What are some therapeutic interventions that parents and clinicians can use to improve attention?

  1. Allow the child to take the lead by choosing toys and activities that parents and clinicians can follow along.
  2. Imitate the child’s actions on objects in order to elicit reciprocal play.
  3. Use a combination of verbal, visual and/or tactile prompts to produce attention. Ex: say the word “look” and also point.
  4. Use specific labels when talking about objects in the child’s locus of attention.

These therapeutic interventions help target the three broad categories of attention, thus, ultimately targeting joint attention.

Targeting attention is crucial for children with autism because it helps lay the foundation for building important language skills.

Sincy Paul, M.S. CCC-SLP


Patten, E., Watson, L.R.   (2011). Interventions targeting attention in young children with autism. American Journal Language Pathology, 20, 60-69. Retrieved from