Teachers’ Experiences of Developing Joint Attention Skills in Children with Autism Using iPads

Mangafa, C.; Moody, L.; Woodcock, A. and Woolner, A. (2015). Teachers’ Experiences of Developing Joint Attention Skills in Children with Autism Using iPads. In: EDULEARN15 Proceedings pp. 6170–6179.

URL: https://library.iated.org/view/MANGAFA2015TEA


Mobile devices such as tablets are increasingly used in primary schools with reported benefits in communication, independent learning and creativity (Clarke and Svanaes 2014). Children with autism spectrum disorder have an affinity with tablets (Sampath et al. 2012), which is recognised by the autism research community with many studies gradually emerging in this field (Boucenna et al. 2014). This qualitative study aims to explore primary school teachers’ opinions and experiences in developing joint attention skills in children with autism spectrum disorder with the use of teaching strategies and iPads. Joint attention can be defined as the act of sharing, sustaining and shifting attention between two social partners and an object, activity or another person (Bruinsma, Koegel, and Koegel 2004, Patten and Watson 2011).

Joint attention skills are usually absent or impaired in children with autism, which means that they often find it difficult to share attention with an adult or peer about a toy by following gaze, pointing and alternating gaze, but also showing interest to the other person (Dawson et al. 1998, Leekam and Lopez 2000). Joint attention difficulties can be a prognostic indicator of autism (Bruinsma, Koegel and Koegel 2004) and can have an impact on language development, communication and behaviour (Patten and Watson 2011). Research on the use of tablets to develop skills in autism is limited with no empirical data to support the appropriate use of mobile devices (Hourcade et al. 2013). In order to understand the current situation, semi structured interviews with 16 school staff members and non-obtrusive observations of 12 pupils interacting with the teacher using iPads were held in three UK schools (one mainstream and two special).

All teachers mentioned that they used teaching strategies to promote joint attention along with other skills on a daily basis, while a few used targeted interventions for joint attention and even less used iPads in general in their classroom. Participants expressed different opinions about the effectiveness of teaching strategies and iPad use in developing joint attention skills since it depends on the teachers’ ability to implement them appropriately and their knowledge of each child.

The observations showed that teachers used a variety of evidence-based strategies to engage their pupils with autism in joint attention opportunities but that there was little use of iPads. However, teachers were observed using the iPad as a reward, a motivator to direct and sustain pupils’ attention, to practice turn-taking and waiting skills and to teach the curriculum. The findings of the study suggest that schools need ongoing guidance on how to use tablets to teach joint attention skills and there is a need for teachers to share knowledge with colleagues and parents so that they can work together.

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