Joint attention is recognized as one of the earliest forms of communication in young children and involves coordinated attention between a social partner and an object or event in the environment (Bruner, 1975; Mundy, Sigman, & Kasari, 1994).
An everyday life example of joint attention occurring could be as simple as a father and son fishing in a boat and a fish jumps and the son says, “Hey dad, look at the fish!” while looking at dad or pointing toward the ripple in the water in excitement while looking at dad waiting for his response. The response from dad of shared excitement and confirmation that he also witnessed the event is the social reinforcement that is sure to maintain future bids for joint attention from the son.
This comes naturally for typically developing children. For children diagnosed with autism and other developmental delays, this type of verbal behavior does not come so naturally and must be taught and paired with current known reinforcers. Ultimately children engage in this type of joint attention to share in the experience with others. For children who are not initially interested in that shared experience, we can increase this skill by using tact training.
One way to use tact training to increase motivation for shared experiences is with teaching spontaneous tacting. To start, since the shared experience does not function as a reinforcer, we have to determine an alternate form of reinforcement initially. Once you figure out your child’s motivation- a toy, edible, tickles, video, etc., present your child with a stack of books or other materials with a variety of pictures and prompt him/her to select one. From there, model pointing out objects in the books; for example, “Oh I see a boat! A boat sails in the water!” Provide more modeling and prompt your child if necessary by saying, “What do you see?” When your child responds, for instance with “A duck”; provide praise and comments such as, “That is a duck. Awesome job finding the duck. Ducks say ‘Quack, Quack’.” Continue this for a set amount of time, 3-5 minutes, and then provide the terminal reinforcer (edible, toy, tickles, etc.) at the end of the fixed time. Once your child is pointing out objects (tacting) in books or movies consistently, you can increase the response effort by waiting for your child to make eye contact when they tact an object and provide praise and comments once they look at you. Doing this often will help promote your child’s tacting and help transition the motivation from tangible objects (toy, edible, tickles, etc) to that shared experience.
Contributed by: Jeremy Cole – St. Mary’s Center