By Marlies Gramann, Associate Vice President of Services for People with Disabilities
Joint attention is when two people focus on an object, person, event or idea at the same time. It occurs when one person alerts the other to an object without words, indicating with just a look or pointed finger. For example, at a birthday party you might look at the cake, and then at your friend, and without saying a word they know you are hungry for sweets. Often joint attention is associated exclusively with toddlers and autism, but it also informs social behavior for adolescents and adults who aren’t on the spectrum. For everyone, joint attention is a foundation of vocabulary development.
How does an infant learn words? Baby looks at bottle, then to mom to communicate what they want, mom says “bottle”, thus introducing this word. As mom gives bottle to baby, there is validation that the interaction was successful and they were indeed, thinking of the same object prior to anyone saying anything out loud. So you can imagine how hard it is for an infant who isn’t developing joint attention skills to learn language.
Fast forward 25 years…how does joint attention play out in our adult lives? You want to leave a party, you look at your friend, then to the front door, no words necessary. How about at work? You’re in a meeting and you verbalize an idea. Your co-worker knows this won’t go over well with the boss, so she gives you a pointed stare with an eyebrow raise. If you have a well-developed ability to respond to joint attention, you know to stop talking.
If your toddler is lagging behind in speech development, it’s important to not only model lots of language, but to also practice joint attention with them. Be sure that you are getting their attention with a look, helping them follow your gaze and pointing PRIOR to saying the word out loud. Similarly, it’s not too late to work on joint attention in adolescence and adulthood if you find yourself misreading social situations or aren’t able to follow conversation in group settings.