What is the main difference between developmental approaches such as DIR/Floortime and behavioural interventions? I would say it’s where you put your focus as a caregiver or practitioner. We put the focus on a child’s development, rather than on his/her behaviour. We take the stance: “If (s)he could, (s)he would“.

Development can mean many things. Behavioural interventions talk about development. Developmental pediatricians have development in their title. Children develop over time. But a developmental approach is about where we focus our attention. It is about the lens that we look through when we are with children who have developmental challenges.

When you consider a child with autism what comes to mind for you? Do you see your child as one with developmental challenges or one with behavioural challenges? Some might say, “Both!” The key here is that for developmentalists, we see the behavioural challenges as stemming from the developmental challenges, then target development rather than behaviour.

Seeing All Behaviour as Communication

When parents face challenging behaviours from their autistic child, it certainly can be very frustrating. It can seem that a child is defiant and misbehaving on purpose. However, developmentalists take a different approach. Whether you refer to Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s developmental approach to parenting, or Dr. Stanley Greenspan‘s developmental approach to autism, both share this idea that all behaviour is communication.

Seeing the child through a developmental lens will have you asking different questions:

  • What is making my child behave this way?
  • What is too difficult for my child that it is making him/her frustrated?
  • What is it that my child is trying to convey that we are misreading?
  • What is so uncomfortable for my child that (s)he cannot handle it?
  • What stress is my child under in this moment?

You can see that these questions take the responsibility, and thus blame, away from the child. This is a very different approach from assuming that the child is in control of his or her behaviour and will “perform differently” for certain “rewards”. The developmental approach aims for the child to want to behave in socially appropriate ways, rather than feeling like (s)he has to behave for an end result.

Seeing Possible Reasons for Behaviour 

The Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model takes into account that each child has different developmental capacities at any given time. These capacities are affected by individual differences such as age, sensory processing profile, and biological underpinnings. You can also see the child’s highest developmental functioning through the safe, warm and nurturing relationships (s)he has with trusted caregivers.

Development

Each child has a developmental profile at any given time. You cannot expect co-operation and the child’s best “performance” if you are expecting the child to behave in ways that are not possible at his/her current stage of functioning, developmentally. It’s like expecting a two-year-old to share toys. It isn’t developmentally possible, no matter how much you “teach”.

Individual differences

Each child has a unique sensory processing profile and unique biological underpinnings. We wouldn’t expect a blind child to describe to us what (s)he sees across the room, yet often we expect things from our autistic children that they are simply not capable of doing, due to limitations or otherwise in their sensory systems. For instance, our son cannot comfortably and calmly sit still for any length of time. Punishing or threatening taking away treasured toys will not change this fact about his sensory system.

Relationship

Autistic children are often misunderstood because of their challenges with relating and communicating. Thus, being around strangers can be very anxiety-provoking–especially when these strangers place demands on them. Safe, warm, and nurturing relationships foster a sense of security in our children so they can feel more at ease to express themselves verbally, or non-verbally. When they are unable to “keep their cool”, it is within these relationships that they can be comforted to feel at ease again.

Respecting our Children

The developmental approach is a respectful approach that accepts all emotional expressions and does not use tricks or things that our children love as tools to get them to behave. When a child hits, spits, or kicks us or someone else, we of course need to stop the behaviour so everyone is safe. But rather than repeating “no” an endless number of times, or making threats about what the child will not be able to do if they continue the behaviour, which gets us in an endless power struggle, we look for the reason why it happened.

Usually, an attuned caregiver will have a good idea about why the child did what (s)he did. There are many possible explanations:

  • The child has a sensory craving that (s)he is fulfilling inappropriately
  • The child has an emotional craving that (s)he is fulfilling inappropriately
  • The child is experimenting with cause and effect or simply being inappropriately playful
  • The child is acting out in response to being mistreated because (s)he doesn’t know how else to respond
  • The child is defending him or herself
  • The child is trying to communicate a negative emotion inappropriately
  • The child was misunderstood and is now expressing frustration inappropriately

Nowhere in that list do you see an assumption that the child is misbehaving on purpose. That list screams of a child in need of support and guidance. This is where a developmental approach takes a respectful position in attuning with the child to attempt to understand what is happening for that child, then helping guide and support the child by bringing out his/her highest potential through eliciting developmental progress. There is not an instant solution in the developmental approach.

It is never too late to change paths if you feel you have gone down a path that has put you in a constant power struggle with your child. By working on attunement, following your child’s cues and other Floortime techniques, you will be choosing a respectful developmental approach that helps your child relate, communicate and think. For more information, please see the Get Started section of Affect Autism.

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Until next time… here’s to affecting autism.

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