As early interventionists, we work on joint attention and early vocalizations with children all the time. However, do you ever target joint attention & vocalization together?
Heymann et al. studied the coordination of joint attention and vocalization in infants at high risk for autism. Infants in this study already had an older sibling with a diagnosis of ASD. Researchers followed these infants from 5 months to 36 months to track development of joint attention, vocalization, and whether or not the infant was eventually diagnosed with ASD or a language delay.
As expected, infants who later developed ASD demonstrated lower joint attention and vocalization compared to their high-risk peers, and their communicative behaviors were less advanced. Interestingly, infants with ASD vocalized significantly less during joint attention moments compared to their peers as well. These differences in communicative skills have a feedback-loop effect on the child’s environment. Caregivers are less likely to respond to communicative attempts that do not include vocalization, so they might not even notice that a child is making a non-verbal bid for communication. Also, parents have been shown to use lower quality responses with infants who don’t use advanced behaviors. As you can see, infants with impaired communication skills may incite small or minimal changes in their home environment, and that is not ideal for language development!
So how can we take this information and apply it to our everyday therapy? The authors suggest targeting both vocalization & joint attention behaviors together could lead to enhanced communication skills in infants with ASD as well as their high-risk siblings. We can also coach parents to respond to less advanced and less salient communication bids from their infants. This information is also great to keep at the back of your mind while monitoring younger siblings of children with ASD so that they can receive intervention as early as possible!
Heymann, P., Northrup, J.B., West, K. L., Parladé, M. V., Leezebaum, N.B., & Iverson, J.M. (2018). Coordination is key: Joint attention and vocalization in infant siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 53(5), 1007–1020.