Royal Society Publishing

Why is joint attention a pivotal skill in autism?

Tony Charman


Joint attention abilities play a crucial role in the development of autism. Impairments in joint attention are among the earliest signs of the disorder and joint attention skills relate to outcome, both in the ‘natural course’ of autism and through being targeted in early intervention programmes. In the current study, concurrent and longitudinal associations between joint attention and other social communication abilities measured in a sample of infants with autism and related pervasive developmental disorders at age 20 months, and language and symptom severity at age 42 months, were examined. Extending the findings from previous studies, joint attention ability was positively associated with language gains and (lower) social and communication symptoms, and imitation ability was also positively associated with later language. Some specificity in the association between different aspects of joint attention behaviours and outcome was found: declarative, triadic gaze switching predicted language and symptom severity but imperative, dyadic eye contact behaviours did not. Further, although joint attention was associated with later social and language symptoms it was unrelated to repetitive and stereotyped symptoms, suggesting the latter may have a separate developmental trajectory. Possible deficits in psychological and neurological processes that might underlie the impaired development of joint attention in autism are discussed.

Royal Society Login

Log in through your institution