What a great fortune that the url affectautism.com was available! I thought of the name during one of my DIR® certificate courses. In the videos I’ve seen, Dr. Stanley Greenspan spoke so eloquently about affect within the relationship with a primary caregiver.
I was long familiar with the concept of “relationship” from my studies of Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s developmental attachment model for parenting even before my son’s brain inflammation. So when I stumbled upon the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR®) model, I knew this was the model for us. It fit in line so well with Dr. Neufeld’s work.
Affect = Emotion
One of my course readings really solidified the concept of “affect” within the caregiver-child relationship. Dr. Greenspan talks about the affective reciprocal interaction between caregiver and child and its importance in development.
Affective = emotional experience
Reciprocal = back and forth
Interactions = between parent and child
For those of you keen on reading more, the full paper can be found on DIR’s main website.
Disclaimer regarding Neurodiversity and Dr. Greenspan's writings:
Sadly, Dr. Greenspan passed away before the neurodiversity movement really took hold but his colleagues are sure he would have readily embraced it. He was a psychiatrist who was trained and worked in a medical model that is heavily driven by a deficit-based philosophy. This came through in his older writings. However, what he presented the world was a very different way of thinking about early childhood development and autism. While he was presenting it from a medical-model lens, in many ways he was challenging that model from the inside-out and was incredibly progressive in his approach. He promoted a strengths-based model that focuses much more on acceptance and not on normalization. This did develop over time and The Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning, the home of DIR/Floortime, has worked hard to listen to and integrate the perspectives of self-advocates into their curriculum, materials, and practice.
So what the heck is the Affect Diathesis Hypothesis?
Diathesis is just a predisposition to something. The Affect Diathesis Hypothesis is about the connection between affect and different processing capacities. In children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it could be that they have some predisposition—due to biologically-based processing problems—to failing to connect affect (or intent) to motor planning and sequencing capacities and symbol formation. (For now let’s just call motor planning, sequencing capacities, and symbol formation “learning”.)
That is, because they are predisposed to not connect affect with learning, they are unable to have affective interactions. This is why autism was originally characterised as children without emotion. It’s not that they didn’t have emotion; it’s that they didn’t engage in affect with others in a reciprocal way. Dr. Greenspan posited that since affective interactions underlie social learning and development, this is the dilemma for children stuck in their development.
However, loving and warm engagement is different from reciprocal chains of affective interaction and this is the biggest challenge with most children on the spectrum. So how can a parent help? Dr. Greenspan said that if we cannot help them with reciprocal affective interactions, they are more likely to have erupting, intense, catastrophic emotional responses. It’s hard to symbolize unmodulated, extreme feelings and we want to help our children who exhibit such distress.
Dr. Greenspan said there is a distinction between the capacity to engage and the capacity for affective reciprocal interactions.
He argued that having challenges with affective interactions puts the child with ASD at risk for not going through necessary stages of development that progress to emotional capacities, social skills, and learning. With these human skills, he felt the child would be better able to communicate their needs to function in the world. At the time, it was not accepted that affect was key for development. He shone light on this and gave us a road map for understanding how we can use that channel into the brain to promote growth and development.
In other words, Dr. Greenspan said that being affectionate and engaging with you is only the first step. The next is to build the capacity to have ongoing circles of verbal or non-verbal communication on a consistent basis to facilitate problem-solving and thinking over rigid, mechanical feelings, thinking, and behavior patterns allowing the child to develop their skills for meaningful communication and self-advocacy.
Through our emotional interactions is how we learn. Learning has always been looked at as separate from emotions, but it is lived emotional experiences that influence how we can problem-solve, reflect and think. We apply what we learn emotionally to our cognitive world.
Similarly, we can only feel empathy if someone has shown empathy with us. Also, we can only feel love, closeness and intimacy if someone has been this way with us.
For symbolic formation to occur, you need both perception and action. That is, you have a capacity for imagery and then combine it with intentions. Only then can you have symbolic meaning. This is a challenge for children who have catastrophic reactions because they cannot tie the overwhelming emotion with reality.
How many of us have children of any age who are stuck in having these daily catastrophic reactions? We feel so helpless as loving parents and want to help ease our children’s suffering.
So imagine this. Take the perspective of your child if you can. I feel this huge catastrophic emotional reaction and it is just that. I do not have a symbolic image in my mind and/or I cannot see that I can have an intention to do something about it.
Capacity for affective reciprocity enables regulation of behaviours and mood. And then you can use affect as a signal, so that when you feel an emotion coming on, you recognize it, and then can consider alternate actions to a catastrophic all-or-none reaction.
This is why DIR/Floortime is the best choice for your child. It teaches you how to get those “circles of communication” as they are called—the affective reciprocity; the back-and-forth interaction with your child that need not be verbal—that are so necessary for development to move forward.
Now how many adults who are supposedly neurotypical are not able to themselves use affect as a signal to adjust their own behaviour? Perhaps it’s even us as parents. And yet we expect this from our children who are simply incapable at their current stage of development, no matter their age.
The DIR model addresses every one of these issues in such a straight-forward, logical manner. It shows us how to take one step at a time and just be human. Our affect makes us human. We will get into all of this at Affect Autism.
I’m going to help parents grasp these concepts so they are in your back pocket. Together we’ll help our children move up that developmental ladder as well as help each other in the process. So next time, we are going to start to delve into what this developmental ladder is exactly. It is the basis for moving forward.
Until next week, here’s to affecting autism!