The impaired development of joint attention is a cardinal feature of autism. Therefore, understanding the nature of joint attention is central to research on this disorder. Joint attention may be best defined in terms of an information-processing system that begins to develop by 4-6 months of age. This system integrates the parallel processing of internal information about one's own visual attention with external information about the visual attention of other people. This type of joint encoding of information about self and other attention requires the activation of a distributed anterior and posterior cortical attention network. Genetic regulation, in conjunction with self-organizing behavioral activity, guides the development of functional connectivity in this network. With practice in infancy the joint processing of self-other attention becomes automatically engaged as an executive function. It can be argued that this executive joint attention is fundamental to human learning as well as the development of symbolic thought, social cognition and social competence throughout the life span. One advantage of this parallel and distributed-processing model of joint attention is that it directly connects theory on social pathology to a range of phenomena in autism associated with neural connectivity, constructivist and connectionist models of cognitive development, early intervention, activity-dependent gene expression and atypical ocular motor control.