Joint Attention: A Critical Skill in Language Development

June 27, 2023

Children with autism have a particular difficulty in their social relationships and are often more interested in and engaged by their own thoughts and sensations than by other people or even the outside world.  They also often demonstrate a lack of, or delays in, joint attention skills.  Limited joint attention skills can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn through imitation, develop play and social skills, and attend to a learning situation such as a classroom.  

Children with autism who display more intact joint attention skills exhibit better outcomes with respect to the development of cognitive, language, and symbolic play skills. Joint attention skills have a vital role in the development of children. 

What is Joint Attention?

Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object or each other. Joint attention on an object is achieved when one individual alerts another to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing, or other verbal or non-verbal indication. A person looks toward another person, points to an object, and then returns his visual attention to the first person.  This is called a three-point gaze. Each person must understand that the other person is looking at the same object and realize that there is an element of shared attention.  The person must display awareness that focus is shared between himself and the other person.

If two people are simply looking at the same object, but not referencing each other, it is referred to as shared gaze. Shared gaze is the lowest level of joint attention.  Joint attention between people is a conversation-like behavior that individuals engage in. Adults and infants engage in this behavior starting at two months of age. Adults and infants take turns exchanging facial expressions and sounds.  The sole purpose of joint attention is to share an interesting object or experience with another person.

Why is Joint Attention Important in Language Development?

Joint attention is a necessary precursor skill for language and social-cognitive development.  It is important for the development of social referencing, language acquisition, and learning through modeling behaviors of others around you and other, later-emerging, skills, such as more complex expressive language, symbolic play, and theory of mind.

What Can I Do to Support the Development of Joint Attention?

Fortunately, joint attention skills can be taught and addressed in a number of therapy models and approaches.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Point to a toy that your child likes and say, “Look.”  Gently turn his/her head toward the toy.  When he/she looks at it, play with the toy or give it to him/her. 
  • Tell your child “Look at me,” and then tap his/her face and then your face.  After you have given this verbal cue, give your child time to respond.
  • Blow up a balloon but don’t tie it off.  Say, “Look!” When your child looks at the balloon, release the balloon.
  • Take turns with a cause-and-effect toy.  Hold the toy near you.  Say, “My turn,” and push a button.  Push the toy to your child and tell him/her, “Your turn.”
  • Offer a little bit…then wait.  Instead of giving your child a big piece of apple or a full cup of juice, give them a little bit, then wait for them to “ask” for more by looking at you and saying or gesturing “more.”

A speech-language pathologist can work with you and your child to show you ways to bring joint attention and awareness to your everyday interactions.  Contact us today to make an appointment with one of our speech-language pathologists so we can support you and your child’s joint attention development.


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