Let’s say you’re hanging out with your neighbour, Paul. In your time together, you’ll point out interesting things in the backyard, look at him when he’s commenting on your blooming petunias and make eye contact throughout your game of cards. Joint attention, which is essentially the ability to get, hold and shift attention when you’re interacting with another person, comes naturally to you. The opposite, however, is true for most kids with autism. As joint attention is an important part of social, language and cognitive development, it’s a good idea to foster your sweetie’s skills. Here’s how to start.
Encourage eye contact
– Use his favourite toys. Hold up noisy or light up ones beside your face. Call Timmy’s name and, at the same time, trigger the light or sound so he’ll look at you. Give him oodles of tickles, high-fives or hugs for looking. Slowly fade out the toys, so Timmy learns to respond to his name and not just Thomas The Train’s sound. TIP: When first teaching eye contact, have your peepers at Timmy’s eye level to make it easy for him to look at you.
-Play peek-a-boo. It’s a natural way to work on eye contact and joint attention. Tasha is more likely to look at you when you’re doing something she thinks is ridiculously fun, so make silly sounds, give lots of tickles and be animated to keep her engaged as you play. Dole out tons of praise each time she makes eye contact. TIP: Play turn-taking games often, too, as they go a long way in building and maintaining joint attention skills.
Practice pointing and looking
–Help Timmy point. Whenever you’re close to something that interests Timmy, guide most of his fingers down so he’s pointing at the object. At the same time, model words such as “Train!” “Look!” “I see a ___!” Praise him lots for pointing and respond with “Wow, that’s cool!” “That’s a great ___!”
-You point out fun things. Arrange the playroom with novel items that’ll excite Tasha. Point them out while animatedly saying things like “Look!” or “It’s Dora!” Give her lots of hugs and kisses when she follows your point to gaze at the object. Don’t just limit this exercise to the playroom – do it at every opportunity throughout the day, each time pointing to something great and saying, “Look!” TIP: If, at first, Tasha isn’t following your finger with her eyes, use a flashlight or laser pointer to direct her attention to the target items (continue to point at the same time). Slowly fade out the light source, so she learns to follow your point.
-Look at books together. Sit down with Timmy and go through his favourite picture books. Take turns pointing to things and labeling them as you do so. Provide him with kudos every time he points to something – a sprinkling of praise for assisted pointing and big-time yahoos for doing it independently – and respond with, for example, “Cool __” or “Yes, that’s a great ___!”
Once your kiddo has got the hang of eye contact and is responding appropriately your points and comments, then help Tasha initiate joint attention.
-Introduce new or different items into her playroom. Think of inexpensive things – maybe books from the library or borrowed toys from your neighbour – that will excite Tasha so much that she wants to show them to you. Flap books and cause and effect toys are great for this! And take her to places she loves, such as the zoo or a local dog park. Stand by her favourite animal and wait for her to point it out to you before moving on. TIP: If, at first, Tasha does not show you her toys or books, encourage her by being extremely animated. Model/show her a few items first and then wait for her to respond. You may need to cover her favourite part with your hand until she attempts to show you. Then uncover and experience it together.
In addition to these tips, you may also find the ideas in An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn helpful. We often use the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) approach with young learners and have had great results. Need more help? Join our membership; we’re here for you!