Three experiments examined the role of attention in explaining dyadic (child-adult) and triadic (child-adult-object) joint attention difficulties in autism. Experiments 1 and 2 investigated children's ability to orient to an adult's attention bid and to follow the direction of a human or nonhuman cue. Experiment 3 tested ability to disengage and shift attention to objects. Results showed autism-specific difficulties at both dyadic and triadic levels. Children with autism were less responsive than developmentally delayed controls in orienting to attention bids and in following a human head-turn cue yet had no difficulty in shifting attention and were faster overall in orienting to targets. Results suggest a specific developmental delay in which children with autism rely on the presence of objects in the visual field to guide action. The relation between this problem and autistic children's difficulties with human communicative signals is discussed.