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Joint Attention & Symbolic Play / Language Preschool

Joint Attention and Symbolic Play (JASP)


Demonstration of JASP in the classroom

Joint attention is the social communicative behavior that people use to share their interests in the objects and activities in their environment. For instance, if a child is interested in an airplane flying overhead, points to the plane, and looks at his father to see if his father is also noticing the plane, the child is engaging in joint attention. Symbolic play is also known as pretend play, and involves a range of ”make-believe” activities such as pretending to drink from an empty cup, pretending a triangular shaped block is a piece of pizza, or pretending to be a fierce lion. Joint attention and symbolic play are especially challenging for young children with autism to learn; however, it is possible to teach these skills to preschoolers with autism. Children who are taught these key skills develop better language skills over the next year (and possibly more) following the intervention. Language skills are important for success in school, interpersonal relationships, and eventually, independent living.


A teacher talks about using JASP in the classroom

A JASP intervention manual has been developed for use by public school personnel to improve social communication and symbolic play skills in preschoolers with autism in public school settings. The project includes one-to-one intervention and classroom group activities.

The project team includes Linda Watson, EdD, Associate Professor, Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences; Betsy Crais, PhD, Professor, Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences; Brian Boyd, PhD, Assistant Professor, Division of Occupational Science; Grace Baranek, PhD, Professor, Division of Occupational Science; and Sam Odom, PhD, Professor of Education and Director, FPG Child Development Institute.

Picture Exchange Communication System

Photo: Robert Ladd

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). It is typically used as an aid in communication for children with autism and other special needs to develop the skills to communicate wants and needs. The system has been used with a variety of ages including preschoolers, adolescents, and adults who have a wide array of communicative, cognitive, and physical difficulties, and has been implemented in a variety of settings including the home, school, and community.


The framed Keymakers quote in this exhibit was a gift to Dr. Watson from the parent of a child client.

Language Preschool Program: Success Stories

”Your program was truly the turning point in [my son’s] language development.”

For Jon*, I certainly think your program [the Language Preschool in the DSHS] was truly the turning point of his language development. The clever approach of using written visual prompts to guide his speech was, in my personal opinion, the key to his improvement. The excellent student teachers under your careful supervision created a perfect environment for learning language and social behavior. Till this day, I hate to think what my son would be if he didn’t have the chance to go through your program. I often wonder if Cameron [Jon’s older brother] could have the same opportunity like his brother, he might be at a higher level in his communication skills.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

”There is no greater gift in life than to improve the quality of the life of a child.”

“It is hard to believe that my son, Al, will be 18 years old November 25. I remember his first trip to UNC Speech and Language Preschool like it was yesterday. Dr. Watson won his heart over at the young age of 3! He was a happy, social, engaging child who was unable to communicate effectively with the world he so eagerly embraced. Al spent a year and a half in the Preschool and another several years in individual therapy with Linda. He learned so much more than speech and the pragmatics of language. He left ”Linda’s School” as he called it, a year early . . . for talking too much too well! Al is now a wonderful reader, writes for his high school newspaper, and enjoys public speaking.

As a family, we found a home. We were loved, supported, encouraged, and educated. There is no greater gift in life than to improve the quality of the life of a child. For that gift, we will be forever grateful to UNC and to Dr. Watson!”