Early childhood mental health specialists look for evidence of "shared attention" in young children (especially pointing, but also grunting or looking back into a caregiver's eyes) as an important developmental milestone. The child may be trying to ask for something (the "Happy Birthday" helium-filled balloons, hugging the ceiling in the supermarket) or simply want to share his excitement about seeing those colorful objects bobbing overhead. Shared attention is the inclination to share feelings about a mutual experience. It is common among well-developing toddlers, but likely to be absent from the behavioral repertoire of a child on the autistic spectrum.
- Earliest Signs of Sharing
A toddler's inclination to share meaning bodes well for his later development of sympathy, empathy, and interest in the feelings of others, particularly his nearest and dearest. As newborns, babies may demonstrate subtle signs of shared attention, such as imitating the facial expressions of a nearby adult. Make eye contact with an infant, holding her face to face, and watch her imitate you as you stick out your tongue. In a month or two, her first smiles are your rewards for being there. "I see you," she seems to say, and you respond with a smile that says, "I'm glad to see you too! Aren't we a pair?"
In toddlerhood, pointing, making eye contact, pointing again, and then verbalizing is an unmistakable sign of seeking shared attention. Some experts say that autistic children do experience joint attention, but they only do so covertly. They are single-minded and won't be distracted from whatever they may be doing. The dispute is about whether autistic toddlers seek to share attention; but there is no argument about the fact that they rarely try to do so by pointing or gesturing.
- Language Ahoy!
Another reason to celebrate the act of pointing is that it usually is a harbinger of language. Within months of a toddler's pointing and gesturing, he is very likely to be talking. It all starts with the presumptive urge to share feelings, to make other people aware of one's ideas and feelings. Pointing is a simple sign of sociability. Language is the natural next step of communicating in a uniquely human way.