Joint Attention

Speech Therapy
Joint Attention

Joint attention is an early social‐communicative behavior in which two people share an attentional focus on an object or event with each other.

Joint attention evolves around three months of age and is well established by eighteen months. Lack of joint attention in autistic children can express the following:

  • Inability to orient to certain speech sounds Dawson, Meltzoff, &Osterling, 1995
  • Deficits in referential looking Charman, et al., 1997
  • Deficits in declarative pointing & showing Baron‐Cohen, 1989
  • Deficits in looking where others point

Research has shown that joint attention is essential for the development of social communication, language acquisition, and cognitive development.

Now the question is 'how to engage the child in joint attention activities?'

Here are five activities to help you engage with your child.

  1. Use toys of their high interest: It need not be a toy that we think will interest the child; instead, it could be something as simple as a spoon, a comb, a wrapper or even a piece of broken wood! If your child is tapping with a spoon, you could also get a spoon and start tapping alongside while looking at your child. Soon both of you are engaging and sharing a common interest and working jointly with an object. You can gradually shift the tapping to prentend feeding, kissing the spoon or doing various other gestures with the spoon for the child to follow. if your child is leading you to follow his actions, you follow them to expand your interactions with each other.
  2. Pop bubbles: Another great way to build joint attention with your child is popping blow bubbles. The child pops and looks at you for more bubbles. Non verbal interactions emerge which are stepping stones to verbal interactions.
  3. Reading books: A majority of autitic children are visual learners and books can be a deep interest for many. Speak about the pictures in the book; label the images and talk about the characters you see. Use a soft voice to sustain your child's attention.
  4. Singing action songs: Movement always catches the attention of any child. When you move your hands, legs, and your whole body if required to perform various gestures, children get excited and often follow them and try to imitate. Not only does it build joint attention, but also builds the bonding between the caregiver and the child.
  5. Hiding toys of high interest and finding them together: This is slightly complex and helps grade the difficulty fo the task. Challenging the child’s intellect captivates them and facilitates sustained interests. Further, looking out for their favourite toy can be deeply motivating. Be cautious not to make it too hard as it can leave the child frustrated.

Twice the child's chronological age is his/ her attention span. For example, if the child is two years old and typically developing (without developmental delays or other conditions), his potential attention span is approximately four minutes.

Find below the table for attention span by age. It can serve as a reference for joint attention. Caution: Autistic children can have higher individual attention span compared to joint attention. Do not enforce joint attention as it can be overwhelming for them.


Average Duration Kids are Able to Focus

3 years old

6 – 15 minutes

4 years old

8 – 20 minutes

5 years old

10 – 25 minutes

6 years old

12 – 30 minutes

7 years old

14 – 35 minutes

8 years old

16 – 40 minutes

9 years old

18 – 40 minutes

10-12 years old

20 – 45 minutes

Source: Compiled from multiple sources by Helen F. Neville


If your child is unable to jointly attend to an object or an experience with you, focus on joint engagement. To learn more about joint engagement and joint attention, watch our YouTube video on the topic.


By, Gayathri Rajiv

Clinical Coordinator & Speech Language Pathologist

Dimensions Centre for Child Development


Chitra Thadathil

Founder & Speech Language Pathologist

Dimensions Centre for Child Development



Mundy, P (2017). A review of joint attention and social-cognitive brain systems in typical development and autism spectrum disorder. European Journal of Neuroscience, pp. 1–18.



  • Share this :

Related article

Make an appointment! Go here!