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Not Pointing: Autism and Pointing

Updated on November 18, 2015

Finger Pointing

Finger Pointing
Finger Pointing | Source

Finger Pointing

The ability to use fingers to point at people and objects as well as to understand and follow the finger pointing of other people is one of those skills that we can easily take for granted. In fact it’s probably one of those things that most people wouldn’t even consider was a skill. However finger pointing is something which has to develop or be learned and the fact is, we are not born with the ability to meaningfully point our fingers or to follow the pointed fingers of others. Infants below a certain age or children that have yet to understand the concept of pointing will tend to focus their gaze and attention on the pointing finger itself rather than the object or person being highlighted by said finger.

Typically, finger pointing develops by about twelve to fifteen months of age. This ability, to point and also to interpret the pointing finger gestures of others allows a child to both indicate things they might need or want in their immediate environment and to purposefully direct other people’s attention to an object or person of interest. Likewise, acquiring this skill also allows us to understand what is meant when other people use finger pointing gestures as part of their non verbal communication.

Pointing and Autism

Pointing and Autism
Pointing and Autism | Source

From a very early age typically developing children are usually both eager and motivated to interact with others and to express and share their own interests, attention and excitement. Finger pointing is one of the first kinds of deliberate communication to develop that allows young children to do just that; to actively share their world with others. Using pointing skills, young children can also demonstrate learning and engage in joint attention/interactions with others e.g. responding to ‘Where’s your nose? Show me your mouth!’ type questions and directions.

Many young children with Autism however do not so readily use facial expressions or develop gestural communication such as pointing in an attempt to communicate and share their world.

Not Pointing: Does not pointing mean Autism?

Whilst there is some degree of developmental variation, most typically developing children have begun to consistently use some forms of gestural communication by the time they are about a year (or so) old. Therefore, if an older toddler is not exhibiting non-verbal communications such as pointing, waving, clapping, determined and intentional facial expressions and other gestures to communicate their wants and needs it does not necessarily mean they have Autism but rather that their communication skills are not quite up to speed with their peers and thus possibly indicative of some level of communication delay. However, taken in conjunction with many other signs, not pointing could indeed be commensurate with or indicative of a future diagnosis of Autism for some children. In short, not pointing or not understanding the intention behind this type of communication in others is definitely more common in young children with (or who later acquire) a diagnosis of Autism but certainly far from conclusive evidence of such a diagnosis.

Autism and Pointing

Autism and Pointing
Autism and Pointing | Source

Child Not Pointing? Learning to Understand Pointing Fingers

Many young children with Autism can find finger pointing very difficult to read and it can prove a difficult skill to teach.It is almost as if we need to start from scratch and teach that an imaginary line leads from the fingertip directly to the object of interest.The steps detailed below can be used to help systematically teach those who have not yet mastered the skills of pointing fingers.

Pointing Tool: Pointing Finger Examples (Different Sizes)

Pointing Tool: Pointing Finger Examples
Pointing Tool: Pointing Finger Examples | Source
  • Grab your child’s attention using one of the 'Pointing Tools` and move it to a proximal point (touching) i.e. Once their attention has been grabbed by the visual cue (the pointing tool) bring the pointer up to and touch the object you wish your child to focus on

  • Rather than pointing to objects across the room/in the distance use the pointer tool to point out the objects directly

  • Over time (as your child appears to follow the cue) you may gradually increase the distance between the object in question and the visual support (the pointing tool). You may start for instance by bringing the pointer very close to the object but not actually touching it. If they continue to follow you may increase the distance between the pointing tool and the object to a couple of inches etc.

  • As well as gradually increasing the distance between the pointing tool and the object in question we would also look to reduce the size of the visual cue being used (i.e. move to using smaller versions of the pointer tool - See Above Examples). You may also reduce the visual prompt by drawing the pointing tool back further into your hand and thus revealing more of your actual pointing hand

  • Do not rush the process

  • The pointing tools displayed above are ones that happen to be designed to be held and used in your left hand but images of right handed pointing fingers can be easily found online and will work just as well.

  • Print off the pointing tools within this hub, source similar images online or if you’re even modestly artistic you could just draw up some for yourself. Cut them out, laminate them, cut them out again and you’re good to go


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    • Rob Winters profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Winters 

      6 years ago

      Thank you very much for your kind and positive comments Michael. I think you're absolutely right about pointing being one of the earlier demonstratable indications that very young children are beginning to appreciate that others do indeed have their own perspectives/minds.

    • profile image

      Michael Jones 

      6 years ago

      This is an excellent post, with very straightforward information on a very complex subject (at least lots of authors and researchers make it complex!)

      I am not a specialist in autism, but I'm interested in finding out how much pointing shows us about children's understanding about other people. I think that actually pointing is the tip of a very big iceberg, where children realise that other people have minds.

      Many thanks


    • Rob Winters profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Winters 

      6 years ago

      Thanks Terrye. Glad you liked it and glad to hear your little boy is making progress. Communication difficulties are often the root cause of innappropriate or challenging behaviors so any way we can help to improve a child's ability to communicate with the outside world and those around them the better for all concerned. Thanks for the Votes & Share, much appreciated :-)

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 

      6 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Very interesting information, Rob. My 6 year old non-verbal autistic son has only been using pointing as a means of communicating for about 8 months. We were actually very thankful when he started to point. Before, it was a guessing game to try to figure out what the heck he wanted and stop the tantrums because he was frustrated with us not understanding. Voted up and shared.

    • Rob Winters profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Winters 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for your comments Sueko, i'm glad to hear you could relate to this. Hope your little girl is doing well.Welcome to hubpages btw :-)

    • Sueko Sasaki BASW profile image

      Sueko Sasaki BASW 

      6 years ago from Southwest Missouri, The Ozark Mountains

      As an Autism Parent, this information about pointing and gestures rings true. Thank you for the insights. My Daughter and I learned pointing because she often had hiccups. I told her we could try to cure them by touching pinky fingers. Sometimes the distraction actually worked! I found out that it was a challenge for her to isolate and show one finger at a time. Best wishes and success with your article.

    • Rob Winters profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Winters 

      6 years ago

      Ty MM.You're right, many factors or indications are sometimes only obvious in hindsight. It can be hard for parents, particularly first time parents to know what to look for or what's typical or not and even typical development can vary greatly from one child to the next so it's not always wise to jump to conclusions. I'm glad you found it interesting.Thank you for stopping by and the votes :-)

    • Marketing Merit profile image

      C L Grant 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I, for one, would never have considered that something as fundamental as finger pointing could be an early indication of autism, when combined with other factors. Some signs are so subtle that I imagine they could easily be missed. Perhaps this is why autism is not always diagnosed properly by medical professionals?

      Extremely interesting article. Voted up!


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