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How to Teach Joint Attention to Children with Autism

As ABA professionals, we should be teaching joint attention to children with autism. It encourages social engagement; a way for the child to bring others into his or her world. So how can we teach this important skill?

What is Joint Attention?

We didn’t pay much attention to joint attention in the ABA world 20-25 years ago. We typically started a beginner program with receptive and expressive language. Manding was not even taught first!  When my daughter was born, it really drove home how essential it is to teach joint attention right from the get-go.

My daughter – who does not have autism – referenced me constantly by the time she was about six months old. She would follow me with her eye gaze whenever I walked across or left the room. That’s what neurotypical kids do. They watch adults constantly. 

For instance, when they see something really exciting, they look at the exciting item but then they look at an adult. Then they look back at the exciting item to show the adult what’s so exciting. And, similarly, if a stranger walks into the room, or somebody unknown to them, they’ll reference an adult to see if that person is safe. 

Why Joint Attention is Important

For children with autism, joint attention can be a lot more challenging. Oftentimes, it needs to be taught. So what do we do about this? 

Joint attention is a pivotal skill for children with autism. If we can really get kids at a young age to start to socially referencing and sharing experiences with the people around them, that’s going to make other types of learning so much easier.  Let’s be clear, when we’re talking about joint attention we are not talking about making eye contact with another person.  We are talking about looking at things happening in their environment and then checking in with the adult to share the experience and gage their reaction.

Joint Attention

Can Joint Attention Be Taught?

Per Holth in his 2005 article titled An Operant Analysis of Joint Attention Skills, defines joint attention in technical terms as the “simultaneous engagement of two or more individuals in mental focus on one and the same external thing.” What that means is that you are looking where someone else is looking. 

I really look at it as a triangle approach. For example, you can have the caregiver on one point of the triangle, then the child on the opposite side of the triangle. The item or object would then be the third point. The goal is for the child to look at one point of the triangle, then look at the other point, and reference back and forth along the triangle. 

The Early Start Denver Model gives us really nice steps for teaching joint attention to children with autism. We’ve also broken up some of our data sheets into teachable steps. They are available for you to download and use as a member of the Bx Resource. Become a member now to get started!

How to Teach Joint Attention to Children with Autism

Once you’ve downloaded the data sheet Responds to and Initiates Bids for Joint Attention, here is how you use it:

The very first step is to teach the student to look at an item when the instructor says, “Wow!” or “Look!” Do 10 trials of just seeing if the student will look at the exciting item when you point it out. Be a little over the top about it. Do something silly or outrageous. You’re trying to get their attention to look at this item.

Then the next step is to teach the student to look back at the instructor after the student has looked at the item. At first, the instructor may need to comment (e.g., “Wow, look!”).  To get the student’s attention again after they’ve looked at the item, the instructor could say, “Did you see that?” Eventually, the instructor should fade out the commenting so that the student is spontaneously looking back (referencing). You can use differential reinforcement and transfer trials to fade out the comments.

Then the final step is to teach the student to initiate a bid for joint attention. We want the student to be able to say, “Look!” or “Wow!” Or if they’re nonspeaking, we want them to make an excited face or gasp in excitement.


You can make this fun for students and really get their attention when you do something over the top or silly. Sometimes we’ll put on a silly hat or do something else outrageous. Anything that might make them look at you with an expression of, Did you see what just happened? Don’t be afraid to have some fun.

So remember, we want to teach our kids to reference the points on the triangle: to look at something in the distance and then to look back at us. This skill should be taught in a really fun and natural setting, like during play, using their favorite toys or books. I love those little peekaboo books where you can open the flap and see what’s underneath. 

The goal is always engagement. If you’re not engaged, the student is not going to be engaged.

Become a Bx Resource Pro Member to get the data sheet mentioned in this blog as well as many more on joint attention.

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