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Two weeks ago we started a series on stumbling blocks that parents come across when trying to play with their children, and how to move past them. Today we will focus on the second functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 2) which is engagement and relating. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully you will find some helpful suggestions here.
DISCLAIMER: These are general suggestions and guidelines. Context is important and can impact how to handle a stumbling block. Children can also exhibit certain behaviours at home or with you that differ from those at school or in other settings with others. Please contact a professional for specific recommendations for your own child.
FEDC 2 is all about getting the ‘gleam in the eye’ of the child, as shown in today’s blog post photo of our son sharing a moment of glee with his grandfather. Once the child is regulated and alert, we want to follow the child’s lead to see what (s)he finds enjoyable and then use affect to get that shared engagement.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan has pointed out that our children will do what comes easy to them with little effort. Aren’t we all like that most of the time? In other words, since our kids do what is easy for them, then on the other side of the coin, they will avoid what is difficult for them. When engagement and relating is difficult, we need to help them. Here are some common problems that parents face and some helpful solutions to try.
Child skips from activity to activity
When your child is self-regulated but moving from activity to activity, it could be that (s)he has challenges with motor planning and sequencing (see the previous blog). The child finds it difficult to come up with ideas of what to do next, so either (s)he will repeat actions or continue to search and wander.
- By following the child’s lead you want to participate in what your child is doing and add high affect to get his/her attention; if the child sees you are interested in entering his/her world, the high affect is done to get that ‘gleam in the eye’. For instance, your child wanders from toy to toy and you grab one of the toys and put it on your head making a funny face and a very interesting sound: your child notices and smiles! Voilà engagement!
- Put yourself in front of the child so (s)he has no choice but to engage with you. You could say things like “Hey! What about me?” or “I’m gonna get you!” (approaching the child but not touching or holding them; we want the child to initiate rather than forcing him/her to do anything). Even if the child has to walk around you, (s)he has acknowledged you in some way and it is our goal to make this happen over and over again.
- You may be able to get engagement here and there but ideally we want to get continuous engagement and interactions happening. This starts with consistently being able to get the ‘islands’ of engagement, so keep at it!
- Refer to the first functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 1) which is self-regulation and shared attention. You may need to help the child achieve this capacity before you are ready to work on the engagement (FEDC 2).
Child avoids activity you are trying to engage him/her in
There could be many reasons why a child might avoid an activity. It could be sensory-based: the child finds the activity aversive due to the sight, smell, sound, or feel of the activity or that it is too difficult for the child. Mainly, it could be that you are not entering the child’s world, but expecting the child to enter yours. Follow what the child is doing and create an activity around that.
- Again, you’ll need to really insert yourself into the child’s world so (s)he has no choice but to engage with you. However you do this by enticing and ‘flirting’ rather than by physically touching the child because you want the child to feel in charge of his/her own body. This way, the child can warm up to the intimacy of relating and have a positive experience rather than feeling forced to do something and it being uncomfortable (this is a key difference between developmental and some behavioural models of therapy).
- You will be using high affect such as an animated voice and make it fun to get the child’s attention until ideally the child is the one initiating the interaction.
- Dr. Greenspan liked to say that you want to be a ‘playful pain-in-the-neck’ to the child by using playful obstruction (inserting yourself in the way of what the child is trying to do). It may feel very uncomfortable at first but the more you do it, the more the child will come to realize that interacting with you can be fun; it is your responsibility to make it fun for the child.
- When your child has high sensory needs–which is often the case–your child may need a lot of sensory-based play in order to be regulated enough (FEDC 1) to engage and relate with you. This might include deep pressure, swinging in a lyrcra sheet, playing with sand/beans/rice/water, or climbing and moving a lot in a foam block pile (FYI: google “sensory play heavy work youtube” for some great video examples) while interacting with your child. When the sensory needs are looked after, you may find that your child is now more available to engage and relate with you.
Child is overly hyperactive so can’t stay still to engage
Many of us have very active children who seem unable to sit still; they are always moving. This makes engagement a challenge for us, but one thing to remember is that engagement can be achieved without eye contact and without being still. Your child’s sensory needs may dictate his/her need to move in order to activate another sensory system.
For example, a child may need to move across the room and back in order to continue with an activity, or a child may need to move in order to activate his/her auditory system and process what you say. Your child might be using his/her peripheral rather than central vision to look at you thus it appears that (s)he is not noticing you when (s)he really is. These are just a few examples of why our children move around.
- Similar to what was mentioned above, your child’s sensory needs may require sensory-based play and specifically in this case your child may require a lot of deep pressure and ‘heavy work’. Our son, for instance, can get really restless and almost out of control if he doesn’t push heavy blocks or heavy things on wheels around early in the day.
- Some examples of our son’s deep pressure and heavy work include being wrapped up in heavy blankets in the morning or before bed which gives his body the proprioceptive input it seeks, and pushing Dada across the room on an office chair or pulling his friend around the gym in the wagon at school.
- While getting deep pressure, the engagement comes because our son is having fun! He is laughing with his Dada wrapping him up like a ‘hot dog’ then he is excited to wrap Dada up too and jump on him! It is all about fun in order to get the child engaged with that ‘gleam in the eye’.
- By following our son’s lead during the wagon pulling or pushing, his therapists make it fun with high affect saying “Oh no! Don’t crash into the mat!” so he is excited to then crash into the mat with the wagon and do it again. Each time they’ll wait until he initiates it again, and he will because he is having so much fun.
- By playing in sensory-based ways, you can help the child who seems so hyperactive and won’t sit still engage and relate with you and the above are just some examples of how to do this. You know your child best, so get creative and have fun moving and laughing together!
Child just knocks down or throws any toys or other objects
Similar from your child moving from activity to activity, a child who knocks down or throws objects likely has motor planning and sequencing challenges–that is, (s)he has a hard time coming up with ideas of how to play, or has trouble executing the ideas (s)he has. By repeating the same action of knocking down or throwing over and over again, the child is comforted by what is familiar and/or enjoys the cause-and-effect of watching objects fall (which is a typical early developmental stage of play).
The child might also have sensory needs that compel him or her to knock stuff over almost involuntarily. In the book, Carly’s Voice, Carly’s father describes how Carly consistently cleared the shelves in the fridge or emptied the drawers in her room daily. Only years later was Carly able to communicate to us that she felt compelled to do it even though she did not want to.
- Most developmental professionals will encourage you to redirect your child’s throwing into something more constructive such as throwing an object into a bucket. This sounds easier than it is. Our son seemed to have no interest in what was constructive and continued to knock items over where and whenever he could. That being said, you have to try to make it fun rather than a ‘rule’.
- We ended up finding a fun toy that was a big circle of a shark’s face with a ‘net’ in the middle that was the shark’s mouth. It came with bean bags. We could muster up all the excitement we could for our sensory seeker and enact the ‘hungry shark’. When our son threw the bean bag, we’d move the circle to catch it in its mouth and vigorously yell “NAM! NAM! NAM! … BUUUUUURP!” spitting the bean bag back onto the floor. He LOVED it and we played this game whenever he would start to throw things.
- Similar to the tips in the sections above, you just need to get in the middle of what your child is doing and playfully become a part of it. If you can find a ‘safe place’ for knocking things over such as putting a bunch of pillows or pairs of socks on a big dresser or table and knock them over together, you can make a game of it to get your child’s attention and start to relate and engage with him/her, for example.
- Our son’s need to throw objects is unrelentless but we keep at it. He has a set of mini bouncy balls in the bathtub that he loves to throw and watch bounce daily, tub dry or full, and we give him the opportunity to throw pine cones up into the trees in his school yard everyday after school for at least 10 to 20 minutes, weather permitting.
- We have also learned how to read the signs over time of when our son is getting overwhelmed or tired and thus needs the sensory ‘heavy work’ that helps him relax and not feel the urge to knock down things. He still tries daily to knock down things like all objects on the bathroom counter–especially when he is tired in the evening or in the mid-morning if he hasn’t had his morning sensory ‘heavy work’. And ideally, the ‘heavy work’ would be done proactively.
- Take care of yourself so you are not snapping at or scolding your child, but rather encouraging constructive alternatives and so you have the energy to be playful and make a fun game out of knocking down or throwing things that are ok to do this with. You might have a family member who is more energetic and playful who can take the responsibility of this type of play when you are not up to it.
Yes, it can be exhausting and never-ending coming up with ways to engage and relate with your child when you are tired, but it is a must, so make it fun! Your child needs you to be the answer. You have the biggest influence on your child’s future capacity to relate and engage with others. By doing the ‘hard work’ now at the early developmental stages, it will pay off later. It is a slow-grind, but the trajectory is upwards. Development happens if you encourage it.
Hopefully now you have some more tools to help you interact with your child when coming up against some stumbling blocks at the second functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 2). Next time we will focus on stumbling blocks at FEDC 3: Purposeful emotional interactions.
Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through play!