What is it we are trying to change?
- We have to capture our child’s shared attention (the first functional emotional developmental capacity, FEDC 1) by either co-regulating with our child if they are upset, or enticing them into our world if they are in their own world.
- We also want to engage the child (FEDC 2) by getting the gleam in his/her eye which we do by joining in what (s)he is showing interest in and using affect, facial expressions, gestures, and tone to support this engagement.
- And, we want to get the back-and-forth interactions, or ‘circles of communication‘ going: verbal or non-verbal (FEDC 3).
So let’s stop here. At this point I see parents doing four things that interrupt the flow of the interaction.
FOUR THINGS THAT INTERRUPT THE FLOW OF THE INTERACTION:
- NOT WAITING FOR THE CHILD TO RESPOND. I will see parents (us included!), getting the gleam in the eye of the child and opening a circle of communication to initiate an interaction with the child only to then jump in with an idea instead of giving the child the time it takes to process the parent’s initiation and then respond. Screeeeeech! Put on the brakes! This is what needs to change.
- RESPONDING TO THE CHILD’S RESPONSE WITH AN UNRELATED NEW IDEA. Similarly, I’ll see parents (us included!) getting a bit of a flow going with the child only to stop it dead in its tracks by initiating a new idea into the play rather than responding with a related response.
- ASKING (A LOT OF) QUESTIONS. Another observation I’ve made is that parents (including us!) will ask a question, i.e., put a demand on the child, about what the child wants to do next rather than commenting or responding with non-verbal emotional signalling on the same topic to keep the flow going.
- USING TOO MANY WORDS when interacting with the child. Our first DIR/Floortime speech and language therapist would remind us weekly that we should only use the amount of words what was provided to us by our son. If our son said “Fast!” we should not respond with “Oh, you want the car to go faster, ok, well then I’ll make him go really fast!” but instead use fewer words: “Very fast!” Think about only using one to two words unless a child is giving you more. Keep the interaction balanced and reciprocal. Even better: use more non-verbal communication instead!
Why is it important to slow down and stretch out the interactions we have with our child?
Recall that the most important aspect of Floortime is the Relationship with the child. Also recall that our children develop and learn through their emotional experiences with us. But our children on the autism spectrum have trouble connecting their affect with learning so engagement is not enough. Our children need help with the affective, non-verbal gesturing and emotional signalling.
Without getting a reciprocity of interactions in a continuous flow, our children struggle with catastrophic emotional reactions. That is, they lack a sense of control without the ability to use emotional signalling with others to communicate. As we help them practice emotional signalling through a continuous flow of back-and-forth communication, our children gain a sense of control and their regulation improves.
Let’s PERSIST WITH A BACK-AND-FORTH RECIPROCITY in our interactions:
1. WAIT FOR YOUR CHILD TO RESPOND after you initiate an interaction. Don’t say anything. Just wait with anticipation in your eyes and a smile. You will be surprised if you start doing this that your child takes longer than you expect, but will respond in some way. Waiting helps your child to think for him or herself and also works on their impulsivity which will eventually increase his/her frustration tolerance.
- ACCEPT ALL RESPONSES from your child without correcting what they say. This is not the time to ‘teach’ appropriate sentence structure or behaviour. This Floortime session is about CONNECTING in a pleasurable way. It is about getting the BACK-AND-FORTH FLOW and that is all.
- USE AFFECT RATHER THAN WORDS if your child isn’t responding. That is, make funny sounds of anticipation such as “Ohhhhh?” or “Ohhhh…” or “Ohhhh!” or even “Hmmm…” or gasps or giggles. You want your child to be enticed into referencing you and then responding to you. You can even do something funny with your body like wobbling so not to fall over.
- REFRAIN FROM PHYSICALLY TOUCHING THE CHILD to force them into your field of vision or to put something into their hand. We want to use affect to entice and woo them into the interaction so that the motivation to reference us and respond comes from the child, not from us.
- KEEP YOUR COOL! It is frustrating when your child can’t stay in an interaction with you, for sure. But if you do not stay regulated and engaged yourself, you will be unable to entice your child into an interaction with you at FEDC 3. Try not to take your child’s lack of reciprocity or responding personal. You need PATIENCE because you are helping the child learn this. The child will need to practice this millions of times WITH YOUR SUPPORT so they can automate it.
2. KEEP WITH THE INTERACTION. If we open a circle of communication with our child and the child responds, we want to continue with another related circle rather than jumping to something new and opening a new circle. This means we try to STAY IN THE MOMENT. We want to create that back-and-forth flow rather than just comment on what the child is doing or repeat what the child says.
- EXAMPLE: You’ve engaged your child by pushing a car alongside him/her car and the child responds with a smile or even looks over at your car. We can continue with this activity by making our car go “Honk! Honk!” or making the car crash exclaiming “Oops! Crashed!” or making your car go faster than your child’s by whizzing by and making a “Vroooom!” noise. We can do all of these things RATHER THAN moving to the marble tower next to it and starting to play marbles, which is something new. You could, however, bring the marbles into the interaction by rolling a marble in front of your child’s car, for instance.
- Your child might even push your car away and try to avoid you, but you can respond by saying, “Oh! No car, Mama/Dada!” And then make it playful by creating anticipation. You could sing-song entice, “Ohhhh… I’m coming back!” as you slowly approach with your car again. Each time your child pushes you away or responds by turning away, that is a response that you can then respond back to playfully.
3. AVOID ASKING QUESTIONS. Questions have a time and a place, especially in the higher FEDCs (4-6) for clarification and stretching out interactions, but in the early FEDCs (1-3), it is best to use commenting rather than questions. In our cars example from above we can make playful comments such as “My car is going to catch you!” or “Here comes my car!” or question-like comments such as “Hmm… I wonder where your car is going!” or “Hmm… I wonder if my car can go as fast as your car!“
- Questions Foster Stop-And-Start Interactions at the lower FEDCs. When you ask the child, “Where is your car going?” the child may ignore you or may answer and then the onus is back on you to initiate again. Often it feels easiest to initiate with another question, to which you get another answer. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. This is not a continuous flow.
- Stop and start interactions are not natural. When we think of communication between people, there is a rhythm to a conversation. We want to have this rhythm with our child by smiling, looking, gesturing, commenting, playing and sharing in an activity together. Stop and start with ‘Question-Answer. Question-Answer. Question-Answer.’ is about the child responding to us rather than a continuous flow of back-and-forth interaction.
- We want the child to initiate. DIR/Floortime is about relating, communicating, and thinking within a safe, loving and joyful relationship. Reciprocity means that we want our child to be initiating with us as much as we are with them. We don’t want our child to grow into someone who is always waiting on a cue from someone else before communicating, or they will only be responding to their environment.
We want our child to actively have thoughts and input in relating and communicating with others. Also, in order to succeed in academics, our children will need to be able to think for themselves. Thus, we must give the child the opportunity to think by giving him/her numerous chances every day to come up with ideas and initiate interactions with us in a continuous flow rather than in one-offs.
4. USE FEWER WORDS AND LOTS OF NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION. Slowing down and stretching out the interaction means you can use ANTICIPATION to keep the child interested in you. For instance, our son loves when my husband rolls the lid from our round tupperware container on its side across the table. He will roll or slide it back across the table to my husband. Now, my husband will use affect to make faces of eager excitement as he stalls rolling it back. Our son will smile and giggle and get very eager to see when ‘Dada’ will roll it back. ‘Dada’ might even start to roll it and then stop and make a face like “Ohhh…” and get another glance exchange with our son before rolling it. He will also go “3..2..” and our son will say “1!” then ‘Dada’ will go.
Before our son was so verbal, we would ‘accept’ an arm in the air gesture as our son’s “1” because that was our son’s way of communicating that he wants Dada to roll the lid. ‘Dada’ might even then smile and nod, put his hand on his mouth giggling and look at our son. This ‘stalling’ with non-verbal emotional signalling helps keep our son in the interaction.
Dr. Mona Delahooke, a DIR/Floortime paediatric psychologist in California, describes the process of being rather than doing with your child so eloquently. She says that children need “an engaged and relaxed parent” that “sets the stage for learning within trusting relationships“. Please read her blog post here.
Certainly there are many nuances and specific situations that cannot possibly all be covered here, but maybe you have a few new tips to work with. The main point is that we want to wait for a child to respond rather than respond for them, we want to stay in the moment with whatever thing we are doing with the child, and we want to give responses back that keep the child in the interaction, rather than shutting off the interaction.
Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!