What is joint attention and what difficulties do people with Autism and intellectual disability have in developing this skill?

The aim of the ARBIT project is to offer tools and procedures to improve basic and essential skills for people with autism and intellectual disabilities through augmented reality technology.

One of these skills is the joint attention, we explain a bit more what it consists of and which difficulties people with autism and intellectual developmental disability have in the development of this ability.

ARBIT is an European project that aims to explore and promote the applicability of an innovative augmented reality (AR) system called Pictogram Room.

This tool is designed to facilitate the training of basic skills for the development of body language and imitation in students with autism and intellectual disability. Both skills are considered essential to develop social competence, an area of high difficulty for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

One of those skills that the ARBIT project aims to improve is joint attention, below, we clarify what it consists and what difficulties people with autism and intellectual disability have in the development of this competence.

What is it?

Joint attention is defined as a person’s ability to share with another person the focus towards a certain object or event through the use of gestures such as gaze following or pointing.

Joint Attention is achieved when, for instance, two individuals look at each other’s eyes, one of them points to an object, both look at the object and afterword they look at each other’s eyes again. It is said then that ‘they have shared the experience of that object’.

Joint Attention has been widely divided into initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention. Initiating joint attention refers to the use of eye contact, gaze shifting and gestures to direct the attention of a social partner to a referent of interest, while responding to joint attention refers to response by gaze following, pointing or showing to enhance social interaction with others.

When does it develop?

Generally, children start to participate in joint attention interactions between 6 and 12 months of age (for example, the baby looks at the toy that his/her caregiver holds in his/her hands and then the baby looks at the caregiver’s eyes sharing both the presence of the toy). It is also expected that they develop the skills of gaze following and pointing by the age of 2 years.

Most eight- to 10-month-old typically developing children follow an adult’s gaze and almost all 11- to 14-month children do so.

What are the implications of this skill for a person's development?

The proper use of joint attention is considered essential for social interaction and language development.

Particularly, gaze following has been considered an important responding to joint attention skill because it contributes to understanding what another is thinking, feeling and intending to do facilitating therefore the development of the Theory of Mind: the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs, intents, desires, emotions and knowledge) to oneself and others.

What difficulties do people with autism and intellectual disability have in developing this skill?

Many people with Autism and intellectual disability have difficulties in joint attention that may be present not only in the early stages of development but throughout their lifespan. As a consequence, they can lose many opportunities for communication, socialization and meaningful learning.

Initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention are two distinct forms of joint attention that develop differently –and are associated to different brain patterns–, as individuals grow older. When infants are at the preverbal stage, significant differences can be observed on the initiating joint attention and the responding to joint attention skills of infants with autism compared to typically developing infants, the first being much more affected, especially in the ability for responding to joint attention. More precisely, children with autism do not engage in the responding to joint attention skills of following gaze, showing and pointing as typically developing children do. However, this difficulty becomes less evident as their language or mental age level exceed what is typically observed in 30-month-old children. Initiating joint attention differences between typically developing and autistic children, instead, do not appear to begin to remit at 30 months of age but continues through the preschool period and in some cases even through adulthood. Therefore, responding to joint attention difficulties are critical to many aspects of development in children with autism, being the early language development the most prominent one, whereas initiating joint attention difficulties appear to be more associated to developmentally chronic differences.

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