Targeting Joint Attention

Joint attention is commonly targeted in applied behavior analysis (ABA) as it is a skill that is often difficult for children with autism. So, what exactly is joint attention? Joint attention is “the act of sharing an experience of an object or event with another person” (White et al., 2011). In other words, it is when two or more people are focused on the same thing. For example, if you are walking with someone at the park and say, “Look! A dog!” the expectation is that the other person would look in the direction you are looking in, towards the dog. Joint attention is an important milestone as it is critical for language acquisition, social development, and learning. It is used on a daily basis to enjoy moments with others (Paparella & Freeman, 2015). For example, how often do you show someone a funny video from Facebook? Or order food at a restaurant? Both require joint attention whether or not we realize it. Today, we will discuss both how ABA addresses joint attention and some tips to try at home!

Joint Attention picture retrieved from

Addressing Joint Attention in ABA

  • Joint attention involves different aspects of attention which includes orienting, sustaining and shifting attention (Patten & Watson, 2011).
    • Orienting attention: turning toward a stimulus
    • Sustaining attention: maintain attention on a stimulus
    • Shifting attention: disengaging from one stimulus and reorienting to a new stimulus

*A stimulus is any object or event that provokes a response.

  • Joint attention requires the ability to respond and initiate. When initiating joint attention, a person typically uses either sounds or words such as “Look!” or “Mom!” along with a gesture (e.g., pointing) or eye gaze. 
  • Since there are many subskills to joint attention, there are many ways joint attention is taught.  Using the prompt hierarchy, reinforcement, repeated practice, and shaping are some frequent strategies used. Here are some examples of each:
  • Prompt hierarchy: If teaching a child to respond to their name (a subskill of joint attention), saying a child’s name while also presenting a loved activity or item. This teaches the child that by responding to their name, s/he receives something positive.  However, the end goal is for the child to respond on their own (independently) without any prompts
  • Reinforcement: Hiding a highly preferred toy and then saying “Look!” while pointing to the toy. If the child looks, the child is reinforced for looking by getting access to the toy. 
  • Repeated practice: Practicing as often as possible through incidental teaching. For example, if a child wants crackers, waiting for the child to give eye contact before giving them the crackers (see October 2018’s post for more information – Limitless Teaching Opportunities).
  • Shaping: First encouraging the child to touch a person’s hand to gain their attention, then by saying their name (e.g. “Mom”), next saying their name and giving eye contact, etc.

Tips and Ideas at Home

  • Read books together. Try to select books that are developmentally appropriate to your child. While looking at a book together, draw attention to pictures by pointing and labeling what you see (Paparella & Freeman, 2015). Try starting with books that incorporate what is most motivating for your child.
  • Play peek-a-boo and give praise when your child looks at you.
  • Use your child’s favorite toys by holding it near your face and calling your child’s name. Once he/she looks, give praise and access to the toy.
  • Play catch or roll a ball back and forth. Before throwing/rolling the ball, say something like “Here it comes!”
  • Blow bubbles together and point/comment on the bubbles. Give praise and excitement when child responds and/or initiates your attention!
  • Sing songs together that include actions like “Wheels on the Bus,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” or “Baby Shark.”

In conclusion, the amount of opportunities to work on joint attention within our everyday life is unlimited.  As with majority of skills, teaching this skill can be fun by using preferred items, games and songs!


Paparella, T., & Freeman, S. F. (2015). Methods to improve joint attention in young children

with autism: a review. Pediatric health, medicine and therapeutics6, 65.

Patten, E., & Watson, L. R. (2011). Interventions targeting attention in young children with

autism. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

White, P. J., O’Reilly, M., Streusand, W., Levine, A., Sigafoos, J., Lancioni, G., … & Aguilar, J.

(2011). Best practices for teaching joint attention: A systematic review of the   intervention literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders5(4), 1283-1295.