This week we continue with our 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 fifth functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 5) which is using symbols and creating emotional ideas.

Other developmental and even some behavioural interventions are successful at supporting children with developmental differences to reach the third functional emotional developmental capacity, but DIR/Floortime can help children move beyond this capacity into the more complex capacities of relating, communicating, and thinking. Below 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.

At the 5th Developmental Capacity: Child is regulated, engaging and having purposeful emotional interactions in a continuous flow with social problem-solving but is not creating ideas.

FEDC 5 is the next capacity that follows from the child who is regulated (FEDC 1), engaged (FEDC 2), communicating with you in a back-and-forth fashion that involves gestures, glances, emotional signalling, body language or words (FEDC 3), and able to sustain complex circles of communication and problem-solve with you (FEDC 4). This next capacity (FEDC 5) is about symbol formation, imaginary play, and creating emotional ideas.

At this capacity the child’s creativity emerges as they use language to express ideas. The child begins to show their imagination by engaging in pretend play and interacts with caregivers and peers in pretend play because they understand symbols. And very important to this capacity is connecting emotions to the ideas. The child will have the ability to replicate real life through play.


Child does not show emotional themes in pretend play 

Many children on the spectrum can reach the higher capacities, or at least have islands of them, but sometimes we see flat emotion. The goal for this challenge will be to broaden the emotional themes in the child’s interactions and play. Practicing expanding this emotional range prepares children for emotional thinking in FEDC 6.


  • Practice positive emotions by reenacting fun celebrations such as birthdays or family outings that the child has enjoyed.
  • Practice negative emotions such as anger in an acceptable way that makes the child feel safe such as labelling when something in play makes you angry.
    • Dr. Andrea Davis’ co-authored book gives a great example: if you are playing with characters and your child takes yours from you, you can exclaim “No! No! No! Angry! Angry! Angry!” so the child sees you are comfortable with your angry, which gives the child permission to be comfortable with their anger as well.
  • Practice taking turns being the one who sets limits in play, such as putting bad guys in jail, making dolls go to bed early, and so on. Developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says that children must feel safe so to be able to practice real life in play without consequences. That is, there is no right or wrong in play and you want to give your child the freedom to play out any emotions without judging. The more they can practice negative emotions in play and experiment with pushing the limits of what is acceptable, the less likely they will struggle with these emotions and boundaries in real life.
  • Dr. Andrea Davis’ co-authored book suggests exploring the following additional themes in play with your child:
    • POSITIVE: Nurturance and dependence, curiosity, power and assertiveness, desire, pride and competence, love, admiration and adoration
    • NEGATIVE: Fears and anxieties, disgust, sadness, envy, shame and embarrassment, rejection and loneliness, and confusion

Child does not engage in pretend play

If your child is having long chains of emotional signalling while interacting with you and able to socially problem-solve with you, but doesn’t seem to have their own ideas or is not engaging in imaginary play yet, there are things you can do to facilitate this. Probably the best thing you can do is fill in the holes in the earlier four functional emotional developmental capacities.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld speaks so eloquently about development and how it is a process of nature that cannot be taught or learned. That is, all we can do is provide the necessary conditions and the right environment, and development will spontaneously happen. It is really what we’ve seen unfold with our own son. By continuing to work on self-regulation, engagement, and robust emotional interactions with our son, we are seeing capacities in FEDC 4 and 5 begin to appear.


  • Continue to work on making the earlier capacities more robust by co-regulating with your child whenever they are overly excited, happy, or sad and in a meltdown, fostering robust engagement with your child and working on robust emotional signalling with your child.
  • Continue to practice problem-solving with your child at this 4th capacity by using ‘wonderment‘ and prolonging each interaction with your child to get robust long chains of back-and-forth emotional signalling.
  • Introduce one small element of imagination once you are at this fourth capacity with your child such as re-enacting in your play something you did outside the house as a family.
    • For example, if you usually play trains at home but went to the beach for the day, you can bring some sand (or something to represent sand) beside the train and a beach ball or pail and shovel and just nonchalantly mention that the passengers are going to the beach today, pointing to the beach saying “There’s the beach!”
  • Play with your child daily using toy characters and whole-body role playing by interacting, talking and expressing a lot of different forms of emotion as your character. Dramatize, role-play, and be animated in a voice different from your own for each character you impersonate, inviting the child to participate in the drama.
    • Dr. Andrea Davis’ co-authored book gives the example of a child playing with a train. You can playfully say (in character), “Hey! I want a ride!” or you can talk as if you are the train carrying cargo.

Child is struggling with assertiveness and/or aggression in pretend play

Many autistic children have anxieties related to sensory or other issues. Resulting insecurities can make it difficult for children to be assertive and instead they can act out aggressively. We need to keep in mind that their aggression is an emotional impulse or a defensive reaction to being misunderstood and be understanding rather than treating it as a behaviour problem. We can be supportive and help them find a way to let out that frustration.


  • Practice aggressive expression in play as mentioned above to help children get used to coming up with ways to express themselves more constructively when they are frustrated.
  • Expand a child’s emotional range through practice in play, by modelling different emotions in different scenarios. Be a character in your child’s drama and express yourself positively and negatively to prompt a reaction from your child and then together you can solve how to work through the drama.
  • Dr. Greenspan also has suggested that you introduce change to a child who maintains rigid play and routine very gently by asking permission to avoid frustration that leads to their aggression. This might be saying, “I was thinking of doing ____ this way instead. What do you think?” or “How would you feel if I liked something different?”
  • Another technique is approaching slowly and saying in a flirtatious, quiet voice slowly and deliberately, “I’m coming to get that toy! This introduces your child to what you will do that is not the way they want it to be, rather than you just taking the toy and them getting frustrated.
  • Create different conflicts in your dramas which challenges your child to figure out a solution. Dr. Stanley Greenspan always said that we want to set up every conflict so the child wins 70 to 80 percent of the time in order to build their confidence.
  • If your child feels overwhelmed by conflicts you present, always slow things down breaking it into smaller steps so they can always feel success to build their confidence in solving problems without resorting to aggression. Also, be more soothing and gentle so they are not overloaded.

Our son loves to throw. One time he threw a ball up high and it got stuck. He was so motivated to get the ball down that he was able to stay in the interaction and problem solve in getting the ball down, but he didn’t know how. We pretended we didn’t know what to do (‘playing clueless’) and first reached up high, but were way too short.

We said “Hmm… I need to get UP HIGH“. If he doesn’t make a suggestion, we eventually look at a chair to stand on. If he still doesn’t catch on, we keep him in the interaction by pointing to the chair and saying “Hmm… there’s a chair...”, dragging out the interaction as long as possible before losing his attention.

Eventually we get a chair to stand on, then have to find a pole or stick to hold on the chair to reach the ball and poke it down. But this process can take 20 or more minutes which makes for a nice, long, problem-solving interaction at the fourth capacity of shared problem-solving, which will prompt our son to come up with his own ideas next time he faces another such challenge (instead of giving up and moving on to a new activity).

Child has emerging pretend play but it remains very concrete

Our children can get stuck playing with very concrete ideas in play. We would like to facilitate richer, more creative ideas to help prepare them for higher levels of thinking at the 6th developmental capacity and higher. We can do this by adding new elements into our children’s play and by helping them understand a beginning, middle, and end to dramas that we create together. We want to entice them to be more creative and have more complex ideas which will help them be more flexible going forward such as when they come across problems to solve.


  • Again, Dr. Andrea Davis’ co-authored book gives us some great suggestions for moving concrete play towards more flexible, creative play in our children:
    • You can elaborate in dramas by following your child’s lead such as, “Oh, I see! Ok, we are in a rocket ship! So should I call you Captain _____ (child’s name)?”
    • You can complicate the drama by adding in a new element such as, “Here we go to the moon again! We’re in our rocket ship! Uh-oh, we have run out of gas! Hmm...”
    • You can delineate, or represent a beginning, middle, and end to a drama such as, “So first the spaceship landed on the moon, and then the aliens came. What’s going to happen at the end?
    • Again, we can use playful obstruction at another level here to playfully and gently insert mishaps into our dramas. This will frustrate our child just a bit in order to help them think of ways to get around the challenge that is being presented to them.
    • Take on dual roles in playing with your child to help them out of black-and-white thinking such as this example: The child says it’s time for bed to their stuffed animal puppy. You be the dog saying in a doggy voice “No, I don’t want to go to bed!” then you can go back to your own voice and whisper to the child, “Hmm… puppy doesn’t want to sleep yet. He’s going to be so tired! What should we do?
    • Vary the form of how you play to include other symbolic representations to enrich the forms of symbolic play. Rather than just enacting toy, puppet, or stuffed animal characters, draw characters, build structures or houses out of blocks, pretend that blocks are cars or trains, etc., and hypothesize with older children about things being different (“What if he can’t take his car to work? How will he get there?“).

Hopefully you found this week’s blog helpful in working with your child at FEDC 5 and the earlier capacities that lead up to this 5th developmental capacity. We will continue with stumbling blocks at FEDC 6 in two weeks. Next week, we will present a podcast with Dr. Andrea Davis of the Greenhouse Therapy Center in Pasadena, California who is the co-author of a wonderful User’s Guide to the DIR® Model

We will be discussing how to help parents and therapists apply DIR/Floortime in their interactions with children and teens. Dr. Davis’s book provides accessible tips that parents and therapists can use to set achievable goals with children, one step at a time. Be sure to tune in!

Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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