Rob was about seven years old when he finally “got” pointing.  Before that, he seemed to miss the point….

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We had noticed a conspicuous lack of pointing when Rob was young. But it took a while for me to realize that he didn’t get it when we pointed at things for him to see. This first became really apparent when we would be in the car, playing spelling games.  We played a game where we looked for letters of the alphabet  on street signs. I spy an A. I spy a B.… By then, Rob knew all the letters. But when we would say, there’s an A, he would say I see it but he would be looking in a different direction than the rest of us.

The technical term for this is lack of joint attention or referencing. Joint attention is the ability to follow someone else’s  finger point or eye gaze, and look at an object, and be aware that the other person is looking at it also, and be aware of the shared experience. Part of pointing out objects is the joy of that shared experience, but appreciation of shared experiences requires the ability to imagine what the other person is seeing, thinking, and feeling.  This is of course a problem for persons lacking theory of mind skills.

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In Rob’s case, it was clear when he finally got it, because he suddenly started pointing and saying “Look!” When we would look where he was pointing, he would laugh and say, “made ya look!”  He obviously learned this from a younger child at school – but when he realized he could make people look, that seemed to spark an understanding that he lacked. Now we noticed that when we played car games, he looked where we looked, and pointed when he “saw” the letter. It is important to remember that autism is a developmental disorder, which means these abilities are delayed, but they eventually do develop. Although Rob is very smart, he seemed to be about four years behind in developing these sorts of skills, but there are exercises and games you can do to help your child develop these skills. For example, RDI therapy begins with exercises designed to encourage the development of joint attention and referencing, because joint attention is a primary foundation for other, more advanced social skills. I think Rob might have gotten it earlier if we had given him specific instruction about pointing earlier. But it didn’t occur to us – we didn’t have to teach Joy to point, or to follow our gaze; she came by it naturally. We practiced, of course, by playing games; but the point of the game was to recognize letters; it already depended upon joint attention skills learned in infancy. Once Rob “got it” his social skills improved, and so did his school work.

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