Recent events—including the publicity surrounding the movie “Far from the Tree” and a highly contagious and dangerously inaccurate meme about what autism is–have me bursting with things to say about autism and language learning. There’s way too much for one post, and it’s hard to know where to begin.
So I’ll begin where it all begins: Joint Attention.
This is what Joint Attention looks like:
In words: two or more people attending the same thing.
Joint Attention is often a two-step process. First, Person A first notices that Person B is directing his attention at something (e.g., by noticing that Person B’s eyes are pointing fixedly in a particular direction). Next, Person A, perhaps curious about what it is that has grabbed Person B’s attention, shifts his own attention to the same thing:
Sometimes Joint Attention involves leading as well as following: Person B might deliberately try to direct the Person A’s attention over to a particular thing that Person B wants both parties to attend to (for example by saying “look” and/or pointing to it). This more active joint attention is at play not just in informal showing & sharing moments (“Look at my new toy!”), but also in deliberate teaching (“This is a right triangle.”).
But when it comes to learning, especially language learning, it turns out that the more passive variety of Joint Attention (a.k.a. Receptive Joint Attention) is critical. According to a recent meta-analysis, frequency of Receptive Joint Attention behaviors is significantly correlated with language development. That correlation holds for both neurotypical children and children on the autism spectrum. But for children with ASD, the correlation between Receptive Joint Attention and language development turns out to be especially strong.
Why might this be and what are the implications for autism and language learning… and for the accuracy of current memes about autism?