Clinically, joint attention is the procedure of engaging and changing attention for social interaction.
Joint Attention has two parts, which are 1) initiating and 2) responding.
At the park, a child who references an ice cream truck’s arrival, then looks at mom, smiles and jumps, is initiating joint attention. At a birthday party, a child who turns and pays attention to a princess character because another child began to look at the doorway with enthusiasm is responding to joint attention.
Initiating joint attention has three parts aligned for the purpose of social connection, as follows:
1) noticing an object of interest
2) changing attention to another person
3) changing attention back to the object
For example, a child is initiating joint attention with their parent if they see a bunny in a field, look back at their parent, and then look back to the bunny while pointing.
A child watching a window washer who dropped in front of window without using gesture or gaze to alert his parents is not initiating joint attention. A more typical response would be, ‘Look mom, a window washer is out there!’ This is an attempt at engaging the parent in the child’s point of view. Initiating joint attention is essentially, ‘inviting you to join the child’s world.’
Responding to joint attention has the following two parts:
1) noticing another person’s attention/interest by following the gaze or point of another person, and
2) following their gaze or point to an object of interest
For example, students who follow the direction of a teacher’s point in a museum are responding to joint attention. A child who does not turn to look at the doorway when all her peers excitedly notice a clown entering the room is not responding to joint attention.
A more appropriate response would be “Yeah, I see it,” said with some sort of gleeful expression. Joint attention is the most basic and generally considered the most important social skill. We simply cannot learn how to socialize if we aren’t paying attention.
“Because joint attention is particularly salient to learning language and social skills, deficits in joint attention can have a profound impact” (Linder, 2008, p.317) .
Lack of initiation and lack of response to joint attention are common in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Attachment Disorders. Challenges with joint attention may also occur in the context of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In this case, the child would have trouble paying attention in lots of different settings and situations.
Challenges with joint attention may be secondary to these other aspects of attention. It will be important to consider what can be done to help your child engage socially as well as remain on task within the learning and social environments.