Whenever a meet a person with autism, I learn something new. Each person is made up of a unique set of skills, behaviours, talents, and interests, and no two are ever the same! Because of this, it’s difficult to say what children with autism have in common, but we do know that for many people, social communication skills present a significant area of difference to typically developing kids. In order to understand these differences, we need to understand how social communication typically emerges in kids without autism.
Birth to 6 Months
In this early stage, babies look at their caregivers, imitated their facial expressions, and begin to focus on one person or object. This is called dyadic interaction, meaning that they can’t shift their attention between two things, and is important because this kind of interaction is essential for building social connections. Smiling between parents and infants helps develop skills like reciprocal turn taking, understanding facial expression, and anticipation of what’s to come.
6 to 12 Months
In this period, babies begin to use those gorgeous smiles to initiate interactions. Their smiles begin to mean, ‘Hey! Look at me! Let’s chat!’ Here is where they develop triadic interactions, meaning they can look at you, up at that plane in the sky and then back to you, as if to say, ‘Hey did you see that? Look!’ This skill is necessary for us to develop joint attention.
Joint attention is a big milestone! It means you and I are both sharing an interaction together, and we both understand we are sharing it together. Think about going to the movies with someone. Something hilarious happens on screen, and you and your movie buddies laugh and look at each other. You two understand that you’re both sharing the joke together, you’re sharing joint attention. You’re not sharing joint attention with all the other people in the cinema though, even though they experienced the same thing, they didn’t experience it with you.
By 12 months of age, typically developing kids can share attention with you and direct your attention to something interesting. This is essential in developing communication and social skills. When your child is interested in something and you’re both paying attention to it, you are able to give it a name, like ‘plane!’, hello language development!
Social Communication in Kids with Autism
Often, children with autism experience impairment in the development of their joint attention skills. This can get in the way of typical social connection. Typically developing kids will simultaneously learn to use joint attention for both requesting AND interacting socially. Children with autism will often learn these skills one at a time, commonly in the following order;
- Directing attention to request without looking at the adult, for example pulling you to the fridge
- Directing attention to request and alternating gaze between the adult and the thing they want
- Responding to joint attention, for example looking at something you point at
- Directing attention to share interests without looking at the adult
- Initiating joint attention and sharing gaze between person and object, for example showing you something they like, looking at it and looking at you
We can see that children with autism start out by interacting in order to request (‘I want this!’), and later they might develop interacting for a social purpose (‘Have you seen this great thing!’). Having trouble with joint attention can make it tricky to develop language for some of these little ones.
For children with autism, communication, and social language development happen in a different way to typically developing children. It’s important for us to understand that, adapt to it, appreciate these wonderful differences and identify the skills that are most important to learn.