Eye Contact is Not Necessary for Joint Attention According to New Research

August 01, 2022

Finding Raises Question If Children with ASD Actually Have Joint Attention Deficits

The ability to achieve joint attention is fundamental to a child’s development. It is a critical step that encompasses learning about environments, supporting language development, and object word learning. Joint attention has long been assumed to be impaired in children with autism, but new findings from a recent study call that theory into question. This new research used dual head-mounted eye-tracking devices to examine pathways into and characteristics of joint attention episodes during free-flowing playtime between parents and children. The study then compared the playtime movements and behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to typically developing (TD) children. Joint attention moments were recognized as times when both the child’s and the parent’s gazes were directed to the same object simultaneously. Interestingly, the authors found that TD and ASD children rarely looked at their parent’s faces during the unstructured free-flowing playtime, demonstrating that eye contact is unnecessary for joint attention. Additionally, they discovered that TD and ASD children followed hand movements rather than eyes to establish joint attention. In both groups, parents named objects more frequently during moments of joint attention, thus setting up the conditions that can facilitate word learning. Ultimately, this research did not find a great difference in joint attention abilities between ASD and TD children. However, the team recognized that it remains unclear why children with ASD typically have reduced language abilities given that their joint attention skills were not impaired. They offered a couple of hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. First, they believe that children with ASD may not be able to process real-time information as quickly as their TD counterparts. Second, the typical rates of object naming observed in the study may not extend to other socially interactive contexts like mealtime or bath time. 

Original Study

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