How to Improve Joint Attention Skills in Young Children with Autism

How to Improve Joint Attention Skills in Young Children with Autism
To improve joint attention skills in children with autism set aside time to interact with your child without talking. While it is important to talk to your child throughout the day to provide speech and language stimulation and models for him to learn from; it is also important for children with autism to have interactions free from the stress and anxiety of having to interpret verbal communication. When children with autism are properly engaged in silent interactions they are free to focus their energy on the social aspects of the interaction.

Two hallmark deficit areas for children with autism are communication and social skills. One of the reasons children with autism have difficulty acquiring these skills is due to an impairment in their ability to interpret information through more than one sensory system (i.e., auditory, visual, tactile, smell, taste, vestibular and proprioceptive) at a time. Many children with autism misinterpret speech because the information comes to them through multiple sensory channels (e.g., a verbal message plus facial expressions, body language and tone of voice) and they can’t process all of it effectively.

For many children with autism, reading your facial expressions and body language at the same time they are receiving a verbal message maybe distracting enough for them to “loose” the verbal message you are sending.

While it is important your child eventually learns to interpret both auditory and visual stimuli at the same time, from time to time you can create unique teaching opportunities by interacting with your child without talking. You can manipulate your child’s learning environment by decreasing the number of sensory systems your child needs to interpret at one time so he can better focus on developing social skills.

When you interact with your child without talking, you decrease his frustration and anxiety by creating an environment free from the confusion and stress of interpreting speech. Use these interactions to work on improving social interactions through a variety of activities.

When you attempt to engage your child in a social interaction (i.e., eye contact, smiles, and joint attention) it is so important to follow your child’s lead. Forget what kinds of things YOU want your child to be interested in and allow your child to lead you to what HE is interested in! Engage him by getting down at his eye level and begin imitating his actions, noises and movements. For example, if he is rolling a truck, do the same and imitate the sounds he is making. Don't be afraid to WAIT for your child to respond to you. It is important to watch your child play, imitate him and go in his direction rather than trying to lead him in the direction you think he should go. Let your child lead you and you'll find he is more interested in interacting with YOU.

Many parents of young children with autism may not observe their child playing appropriately with toys yet. Children with autism tend to spend a majority of their "down time" (i.e., time when they are not engaged in structured activities) alone and demonstrating self stimulating behaviors. You may begin these social interaction exercises by imitating your child’s self stimulating behaviors. A self stimulating behavior is an activity your child engages in to provide sensory simulation in an effort to regulate his sensory systems.

Common examples of self stimulatory behavior include: rocking, flapping, spinning, jumping, visually examining objects or hands close to the eyes and vocalizing, although there are many more. Silently observe your child’s behaviors, sit next to him, and imitate his actions.

It may feel strange to imitate your child’s self stimulatory behaviors. You may have already tried to decrease these behaviors and by imitating your child you may feel as if you are encouraging your child to engage in these behaviors. Please note it is important to consult with an Occupational Therapist (OT) specially trained in sensory integration disorders to determine the type and amount of sensory input your child needs. Many OTs believe it is beneficial to allow your child to engage in self stimulatory behaviors at designated “down times” and for some children, during and between structured activities.

The goal of this exercise is to get your child to engage in social interactions with you. It is likely that your child will notice you are imitating him and he may establish eye contact with you, he may smile and he may even begin to engage in turn taking or imitation with you. These are the three goals of this exercise:
1. Exchange eye contact (you don’t have to maintain eye contact with your child throughout the exercise; keep in mind it is unnatural for us to maintain constant eye contact with another person for an extended period of time. Encourage natural eye contact during exchanges; 2. Exchange smiles and different facial expressions; 3. Turn taking or imitation. The purpose of this exercise is to create a social connection between you and your child by silently following your child’s lead and see where HE takes YOU.

In addition to imitating your child’s behaviors you can play simple tickle games (e.g., walk mouse, creep mouse……mousey found a hole), “Peek-a-Boo” or rough and tumble play with your child. The goals and rules of this type of play are the same as above: no talking, exchange eye contact and smiles/laughing and wait for your child to indicate he wants “more” of the game. In this type of social play you are in control most of the time so there may not be an opportunity for turn taking. The focus of this type of interaction will be your child learning to signal he wants “more” of the game. You can teach this skill by engaging him in the tickle game for a few turns and then wait for his signal that he wants it to continue.

For example, starting at your child’s feet, walk your fingers slowly up his legs saying, “walk mouse, creep mouse………” or use sound effects if you don’t want to use any speech at all. When your fingers reach his waist, quickly find a ticklish spot and say, “mousey found a hole” or again use sound effects only. (Note: the repetitive speech used in this game should not be distracting to your child as it serves as sound effects more than it carries true meaning or speech your child needs to interpret for meaning).

After your child begins to anticipate the tickle, slowly walk your fingers up his legs and then pause and wait for him to look at you, giggle or respond in some way to indicate he is anticipating what’s coming. Once you receive that eye contact and/or smile or giggle reward your child with the tickle. As simple as these games sound, they are critical for your child’s social skill development and should be practiced often.

For more information on building your child’s social awareness skills (which are critical to overall development and learning) learn more about the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) program at ( .

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