Teaching Children with Autism to Respond to Joint Attention Initiations
Martins, M. P., & Harris, S. L. (2006). Teaching children with autism to respond to joint attention initiations. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 28, 51-68. 949-51.
Reviewed by: Kathleen Moran, MA
Why research this topic?
Joint attention involves initiating or responding to nonverbal, social cues to direct the attention of an individual in order to share the experience of an object or event—a skill that is critical in the development of language, back-and-forth interactions with others, imitation, play, and eye contact. Deficits in joint attention are one of the earliest indicators of autism and may be a primary reason for their lifelong difficulties in communication and social interaction. The goal of the current study was to see if joint attention could be taught to children with autism.
What did the researcher do?
Three preschool-age children (age 3 to 4) with autism participated in the current study. In the first stage of the intervention, the teacher called the child’s name, turned her head toward an object, touched the object with her pointer finger, and said, “Look!” In the second phase, the teacher merely gestured toward the object instead of touching it. Subsequently, the teacher systematically faded out the pointing gesture and the request to look, so that eventually the participant would respond when the teacher only called the child’s name and looked in the direction of the object. Every time the participants responded correctly, they received tangible objects such as preferred toys. The intervention was started at different points in the study for different participants to assess whether it improved joint attention regardless of when it began. After participants completed the intervention, teachers stopped giving tangible objects to participants as an incentive for correct responding in order to test whether participants would still display joint attention. Participants were also placed in other settings with other adults to see whether they demonstrated joint attention in different situations. In addition, they were observed to find out whether, having learned to respond to joint attention, they would begin to initiate joint attention more often on their own.
What did the research find?
The intervention was successful in teaching joint attention skills to the children with autism in the study, and the children continued to engage in joint attention even after they stopped receiving tangible incentives for doing so and even when they were observed in different situations. However, their rate of initiating joint attention did not change.
What are the strengths and limitations of the study? What do results mean?
This study supports the use of behavioral intervention to teach learners with autism to respond to joint attention. However, children continued to have difficulties with initiation of joint attention, suggesting that different interventions may be required for that skill. Additional research needs to be done to see if learning to respond to joint attention leads to more general improvements in communication and social interaction.