This week I’ll talk about the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model’s developmental ladder: The Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDCs) for Learning. There is a lot written about childhood development but only the DIR model describes it in terms of functional emotional developmental capacities.
These capacities are likely different than any you’ve seen elsewhere because they are based on affect. They are the foundation of the DIR model in the context of safe, loving and nurturing relationships. Dr. Greenspan describes even more stages of development, but it is the first six we are the most concerned with.
Typically, babies progress through these stages into early childhood but children on the autism spectrum can progress through them differently and/or much later. The stages, or capacities, beyond these first six are more advanced stages that can happen into the teenage years and adulthood.
The good news is that anyone can continue to develop throughout their lifetime. There is no rush in Floortime.
It is also important to note that moving through the stages is not linear. You don’t necessarily master one and move to the next, then master that and move to the next, and so on. This is why we now refer to them as functional emotional developmental capacities rather than ‘levels’ in the model.
More common is that children have holes in the early capacities of development as they move forward through the later capacities, and these holes are always something we work on supporting. We’ll talk about this a lot more going forward. Below are the first six developmental capacities, as described in the book Engaging Autism by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, PhD.
Capacity 1: Self-regulation and Interest in the World
As Dr. Greenspan says in Engaging Autism on page 31, an infant “connects his emotions to his actions and sensations.”
This means that the child is calmly showing interest and responds purposefully to sensory input such as the sight of their mother, the sound of their mother’s voice by turning their head, the touch of their mother’s hand on his or her skin, or the movement of an object in front of their face, etc.
In typically developing children, this begins in the first 3 months of life. In children with developmental differences, this may be challenging for a variety of reasons.
As babies, they may find certain sensations unpleasant thus they don’t attend to them and might cry or seem unresponsive. As older children we might learn that a child cannot tolerate loud noises, or certain types of material against their skin, or certain textures of food, for instance.
When a child is unable to take in information from their senses and feel at ease and focused, it will be a challenge to interact with others.
So in DIR/Floortime, the goal is always to find ways to help the child feel at ease so they can attend to their environment.
For some of our children, this might mean being very animated and active because they are under-responsive. For others, it might mean moving and talking more slowly and quietly because they are naturally so overstimulated.
We will talk more about this next blog when we get to the ‘I’ in DIR, individual differences. Whatever it is, we have to find the ways to give our children that feeling of safety.
This is up to us to do because we know our children best, and it is our mission to ensure that our child is available, at ease, and interested so we can also support and facilitate their developmental capacities.
Capacity 2: Engaging and Relating
This capacity is the stage when a baby has a gleam in their eye for their primary caregiver. They smile and respond to the mother with facial expressions. Infants learn to distinguish caregivers from others and inanimate objects.
In typically developing children, this begins at age two to five months old. In children with developmental differences, the child may have these developing intimate feelings for their caregiver but have difficulty expressing it, so the caregiver may in turn respond less to the seemingly non-responsive baby.
In this case, the interactions between caregiver and child will be more brief and unlike typically developing children, the child will take less initiative in interacting.
This can be an ongoing difference for children as they get older and we notice it when we try to get their attention or have a conversation. They may just seem unavailable to us or it may appear that they don’t even notice us. This is usually not the case though.
Their biological systems (as discussed next week in the ‘I’ or individual differences) may simply make it too hard for them to engage in the way we are familiar with. According to Jake Greenspan, son of Dr. Stanley Greenspan, we are always aiming for back-and-forth interactions while working on shared attention and engagement by relating with them.
The other important point about the 2nd capacity, and DIR/Floortime in general, is that we want the initiative and desire to come from the child. So we would never force the child to look at us by moving his or her face in our direction, for instance, or saying, “Look at me”.
Rather, we entice children into engagement by using affect so they want to. We do this by following their lead through what is emotionally meaningful to them, even if it is something that seems meaningless to us, like rubbing a spot on the floor, for instance.
The DIR Model assumes that all behaviour is communication and purposeful.
Capacity 3: Intentionality and Two-Way Communication
Here we start to see a baby respond with interactions using eye contact and gestures, such as grabbing a pacifier from the caregiver’s hand.
Caregiver and infant exchange signals with one another for a reason such as smiling to get a smile in return.
Infants are able to let the caregiver know what they want using gestures and signals. They may grunt with delight while reaching their hand out when they want something the caregiver is holding, for instance.
They are also starting to perceive a spatial world as they watch an object fall, and are forming a sense of me versus you, and a sense of reality. In typically developing children, this stage begins at age four to ten months old.
In babies where the sensory-affect-motor connection is a challenge, they may only be capable of very brief interactions. They find it difficult to express their needs without screaming or crying. Thus, their behaviour may be more impulsive and unpredictable.
When a bit older, they may hit another child to get what they want because they can’t figure out how to use eye contact and emotional signalling to show the child they want a turn, for instance.
Rather than initiate interactions, the child will mostly respond to caregivers.
In DIR/Floortime we try to work on the back-and-forth interactions while we support the child’s regulation, shared attention, engagement, and relatedness with us.
It can be done, though, when we follow what the child is most interested in because this is the window into their emotional world.
When we are good observers, we can join them in that world and playfully entice them into these back-and-forth exchanges, or circles of communication as Dr. Greenspan liked to call them.
Capacity 4: Complex Communication and Shared Problem Solving
Capacity 4 is a big milestone for any child, but especially for those with developmental differences. It is at this capacity that many things start to happen.
A child will begin to figure out that if they want a toy that is up on the shelf, they have to pull Mommy’s hand to get it for them. That is, they are now using capacity 3 to problem solve.
There will now be three or four steps towards a goal. The child develops pattern recognition before language which leads to language development and scientific thinking later on as they figure out cause and effect. They also see patterns within themselves and others such as being able to be happy sometimes and also being able to be sad other times.
Even more at this capacity, a child will be able to tame their emotional outbursts because they can signal back and forth to understand that a look from Mommy means that the food is coming in a minute, for instance.
In typically developing children, this stage begins at age ten to eighteen months old. In some children with developmental differences this stage can be quite challenging.
Many parents miss the importance of this stage because their child has good receptive language and can even recognize numbers or letters. They might read, but don’t fully comprehend what they are reading.
But even with these skills, some children are unable to maintain sustained, ongoing interactions (30 or more back-and-forth exchanges) and are unable to socially problem solve (even if they can independently problem solve).
At this capacity we need to see that children can have joint attention with their caregivers (which does not necessarily mean eye contact) in order to figure out a problem together. We need to see that they initiate an interaction with the goal in mind and signal back and forth with you to solve the problem of getting that goal achieved.
A child who struggles with connecting their affect to their motor skills will tend to give up if faced with a challenge and move on to something else rather than persist. They are not forming these types of pattern-recognizing skills. They might stick with behaviours they are familiar with instead.
Many autistic children struggle at this capacity and remain stuck if those around them struggle to connect with them. But in Dr. Greenspan’s clinical observations, his team found that through meaningful, emotional interactions children can reach this stage with support.
Capacity 5: Using Symbols and Creating Emotional Ideas
At Capacity 5 children begin to engage in pretend play and show their imagination. They interact with their caregivers and peers in their pretend play because they understand symbols.
We see their creativity emerge as they share new ideas. Children use words meaningfully so that when they say “apple” they understand the experience of eating an apple rather than just having memorized a symbol ‘apple’ to mean a round, typically red fruit.
In typically developing children, this stage begins at age eighteen to thirty months old. Children with developmental differences may have difficulty attaching needs and emotions to actions and words, according to Dr. Greenspan, and struggle with this stage, so it might happen much later.
It is common in DIR/Floortime to hear that children show ‘islands’ of capacities. So a child might have islands of ideas or pretend play, but there are many holes in the earlier stages of development.
The goal is to continue to support the earlier stages by supporting the child’s capacity to be at ease and attending, to engage and relate, supporting the back and forth until that gets ‘cooking’ (as Dr. Greenspan liked to say), until you can keep the circles of communication going to solve a problem together.
That is, we wouldn’t start playing at Capacity 5 with a child if the first four capacities are not yet present because they would not be developmentally ready for symbolic play yet.
Capacity 6: Logical Thinking and Building Bridges Between Ideas
Here at capacity 6, the meaningful ideas from capacity 5 are linked together. In typically developing children, this stage begins at age thirty to forty-two months old.
Typical toddlers can know and express that they want to do something because of some reason, such as wanting to go outside to play. They can answer ‘wh’ questions (who, what, when, where…).
At this capacity, children now understand that one event can lead to another across time and space. In Engaging Autism, Dr. Greenspan used the examples of something knocking something over, or Mommy not being here now, but being close by.
Children can also distinguish between what’s inside of them such as fantasies versus reality.
Again to play at capacity 6, we would want to see that the child is ‘cooking’ in all five previous stages first. And again, we might see islands of capacity 6 despite the child operating in earlier capacities most of the time.
Our goal is to support the holes in the earlier stages of development. These first six capacities are typically mastered by typically developing children by the age of four or five before they start school.
In children with developmental differences it can take much longer. Even if you’re later rather than early, you can still make great strides using DIR/Floortime in supporting your child through these developmental stages.
In this stage you can think of more than one reason for why something happens. Perhaps my friend didn’t want to play with me because he was busy or because I ignored him last time, for example.
One can also compare why one likes something or someone more than another and understand that there is more than getting your own needs met.
As Dr. Greenspan puts it on page 51 of Engaging Autism, at this capacity you “must be able to invest emotion in more than one possibility”.
Gray Area Thinking
Here one will understand degrees of feelings, events, or phenomena.
One now can compromise because you understand that there are different reasons for things and a differing level of importance of some things over others.
Some examples are feeling only a little bit mad today, or realizing that your math test is more important than your soccer practice and why.
Reflective Thinking and an Internal Standard of Self
In theory this would develop in early adolescence when a child forms their own set of morals.
One can understand that what is acceptable for one person is not acceptable for themselves.
One can reflect that they are feeling angrier than they felt yesterday about something.
They can take two perspectives at the same time.
Now that you understand the functional emotional developmental capacities, we can talk about where your child is developmentally, how to meet them there and how to help support them through each of the capacities.
In a few weeks, I will start to focus on each capacity in more depth. But first we will move to the ‘I’ and the ‘R’ in the DIR model. Next week I will talk about the ‘I’ which is Individual differences and in two weeks, the ‘R’, which refers to the Relationship.
Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!