When Rhema was around 18 months old, we lived in a tiny village in southern Germany, and I was in that confusing time of Wondering. Is there something wrong with Rhema? A clue in the affirmative came one day when I went to pick her up from my German neighbor who had been babysitting for me. As I crossed the yard, I could see that my neighbor Babbsi was standing at a large, closed window and Rhema was in her arms.
I was so excited to see her that I stopped outside the window and started chanting her name. She did not notice me. Babbsi smiled and told Rhema ‘Mommy’s here.’ Babbsi tried to get her attention; she pointed at me and even tapped on the window. But Rhema continued to look away.
I began jumping up and down, making funny faces, pumping my arms, calling her name. But she never even looked in my direction. I remember feeling a pit in my gut, as I finally dropped my arms and headed inside. At the time, I did not know there was a name for what Rhema was lacking. I now know that it is called Joint Attention.
Joint attention refers to shared moments when an adult and child are both focused on the same thing. This process of shared experience involves observing an object or event by following a gaze or following pointing gestures. Joint attention is a prerequisite for language development and social development, and babies typically develop this skill around six to eight months of age. Joint attention teaches children “social referencing”. In other words, when a child looks at Mom and identifies her excited reaction in response to what she is looking at, the child will often assume the same emotional response when he sees the beautiful cardinal in the tree that his mother is observing. Joint attention is (at least, initially) usually severely lacking in children with autism.
Now here’s the cool thing. I was reading a book the other day that referenced a study on joint attention by a researcher named Dare Baldwin.* He stated that babies gain new information and learn to communicate through joint attention, but that the power of joint attention hinges on one thing: the baby’s parents and other family members have to matter. Because the baby cares about what Mommy cares about, the baby seeks her focus of attention. Mom is her point of reference in a new and changing world, and so, baby sees what Mommy sees. The baby learns to see the world first through her mother’s eyes. Language acquisition naturally follows.
So you know I had to think about God and our relationship with Him in terms of joint attention. It goes without saying that God wants our attention. The Bible is explicit: He wants our hearts, our love, our worship, our lives. Just as there are things I long to show Rhema, I know that there are things God wants to show me – about me, about my family, about His heart for this world – if only I would give Him my attention.
But the biggest thing I have learned from studying joint attention in autism is that there must be a referencing point. Moreover, that referencing point has to be the most important thing in your life, it must captivate you. For me, that still point, that center of attention, must be Jesus. Oh, to learn to see the world through His eyes! To learn to see my situation through His eyes!
Well, I think I’m going to try it. In the midst of all this, I’m going to try to make Jesus my single point of reference again. Nothing else. If anyone else is up for the challenge, let me know how it turns out.
Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not. Jeremiah 33:3 (KJV)
*The book I referred to is: The Boy Who Loved Windows by Patricia Stacey