Joint attention is very simply, the process of sharing experiences or information with another person using non verbal communication.
It seems that joint attention is really at the root of the common issues relating to R.‘s autism. Not long ago I was wondering exactly what happens in my daughter’s brain when she is progressing developmentally. It is a simple, and likely not complete answer, but it seems to me that improvements in her joint attention skills have led her to be able to speak, to imitate and process receptive language better. It has helped her play skills and probably several other things.
I can’t help but wonder what exactly led to R. gaining joint attention skills. Again, this is a simple and incomplete answer, but I think it has to do with sensory processing.
Back when R. was two, she was so overwhelmed by processing the sensory information she was receiving that she really could not process much. She could not pay attention to much of anything in her environment completely because she was caught up in paying attention to herself.
At the time her running, jumping, crashing and other sensory seeking behaviors made her appear wild. But in retrospect I realize that she was really quite determined to give herself the input that her body was seeking, and that needed to be fulfilled before she could process anything.
When she was three we dropped her nap, and I think things really improved for her after that. It could be at least partly coincidence, but I do think that it did help her. She has always been a good sleeper, but not so good at the waking up transition. So when she napped, she was going through that transition twice, I think she lost a lot of time to that (and sleeping) that is now taken up by activity.
Shortly after turning three, she began to imitate and developed echolalia. She also began to be anxious in some public settings and to exhibit her first sensory avoiding behavior – putting her fingers in her ears.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that when she was finally able to pay attention to more of her world, she found it kind of scary or at least overwhelming. I think that putting her fingers in her ears gives her great power over her environment.
Ultimately I think that is the best answer. R. is able to process sensory input because she has found ways to tolerate and likely understand the information on her own terms. Even when she was at her wildest, I always had the impression that R. knew what kind of sensation or activity she needed. As she gets older she is even better at knowing what she needs, and she seems to get her fill faster.
It makes sense that she has to learn how to process all of the information that she is receiving from her body and senses. For her to be able to pay attention to anything outside of herself means that not only does she need to be able to process this information, she has to process it in such a way that it is not distracting to her.
I also think that just because she can process her sensory information better, does not mean it is easy for her. I suspect it also is probably not exactly the same for her all the time. Some days things bother her more than others.
When we were on a general school tour the principal told us that we would be entering several classrooms in progress. She instructed us to go all the way to the back of the room, so we would be out of the way. I’ll admit my elementary school experience is decades old, but I could not figure out at first glance where the back of the room was. The desks were set in tables, none facing in one direction. The kids were sitting in groups all over the room, facing different directions. I wasn’t alone in my confusion. After the first classroom I went to the back of the line, so I could follow everyone else, and the same thing happened in every classroom. Whoever was first just stood there, not sure what to do.
Maybe that is how R. sees the world, it is just a jumble of information that she has to find some way to understand.
As a parent I have to keep learning how to accommodate and encourage what she needs. I can try to prepare her for new situations or offer familiar supports.
I also need to manage my own feelings about the behaviors. I really should not get annoyed that she is running around dumping all her toys out. I should realize that she needs some physical activity throughout the day, and if I don’t help her find something to do, she will decide for herself and I might not like it.
One of the hardest parts is being able to interpret R.’s behaviors and help her learn to communicate exactly what she wants. Putting her fingers in her ears never means that she wants to leave. Even crying doesn’t always mean that she wants to leave.
We went to a birthday party at Lemos Farm. She cried on and off for half an hour, every time she cried we would be ready to leave. We were just about to say good bye when she hopped out of the stroller and started playing. She had a great time and played for over an hour. I’m so glad that we waited.
It is hard to know what to do to help R., how to react to her sensory needs. It would be nice if there was a specific solution to sensory issues. A special swing or apparatus we could all sit in and magically get over ourselves and pay attention. But that’s not how it works. Maybe I should take comfort in knowing that there is nothing that I have missed, no secret technique.