Last time we covered how emotions are key to affecting autism. This time we’ll talk a little bit more about that. Specifically, let’s discuss how essential it is to respect the emotional experiences and expressions of our children.

Why do emotions matter?

Relationship is the most important component in helping our children develop and flourish. It is through our relationship with a child that Floortime works. All of us learn through our emotional experiences with others. If we try to shut down our children’s emotions, we are essentially telling them that what they feel is not important. Thus, they learn that their feelings are not important.

Some sensitive children might even take that to believe that we do not find them important and they are not worthy of respect. This will be a big problem because children cannot feel safe with someone they do not trust and who does not allow them to be themselves.

The developmental approach puts emotions in the forefront of importance. Not paying attention to our children’s emotional expressions comes at a high cost because we miss out on that window into our child’s world—what makes them tick and what will help them respond to us and then feel safe enough to initiate interactions with us.

Challenges to the developmental way of thinking

Parents have a pre-conceived idea of what their children should be doing by a certain age. They see other children learning and developing and want to make sure their child is keeping pace.

When learning of their child’s developmental difference, parents feel even more pressure to see their children acquire familiar skills.

Development works at its own pace, though. Due to their unique biologies, children with developmental differences have difficulty mastering early emotional developmental milestones on a neurotypical timeline.

This, in turn, makes it very difficult for them to master the skills that parents see other children acquiring so easily on a neurotypical timeline as well.

The most difficult stumbling block for parents to overcome when they first learn about DIR/Floortime might be to set aside the notion of teaching the child skills. To follow the child’s natural interests feels like putting the child in the lead which doesn’t seem to make sense.

This might be because many parents are receiving behavioural interventions from public services including public school where specific behaviours are measured to show that progress has been made.

With the developmental approach of DIR/Floortime we are instead looking at the developmental capacities that underlie behaviour and working on filling in any gaps in earlier developmental stages.

Focusing on these developmental capacities will foster more spontaneous interactions from our children which will also foster generalizing capacities across various situations and places.

Following the child’s natural motivations fosters this, rather than teaching skills that are likely to be memorized and not generalized across different situations and contexts.

Respecting the child

In Floortime our goal is to see what naturally motivates the child. We can really only relate to another person if we can actually acknowledge and appreciate the way they see things. Watching what the child does gives us our first clue.

When children experience how much we are ‘in tune’ with their interests, we have an advantage in our relationship with them. We have their trust and here can begin to help children show more purpose in their behaviours. We act as their guide rather than their teacher, challenging them as they are ready to move along developmentally.

This process gets easily thwarted and interrupted, though, when we put unnecessary focus on negative emotional outbursts of behaviour. It will—in and of itself—snowball into a power struggle if we forget to think developmentally. We can have children getting the message that they are only acceptable in our eyes if they censor their emotions.

Respecting children means understanding where they are developmentally. What are they capable of? How do their individual differences in sensory processing affect their capacities? We often expect too much too soon.

When children act out, they are expressing emotion to us in the only way they are capable. It is our job and our responsibility as an understanding caregiver to ‘translate’ that behavioural communication rather than judging, controlling, or punishing it.

It’s a hard thing to do. Your kid hits and kicks you, knocks down or throws items in your home, makes a huge mess, screams, yells loudly or tantrums in public. The list goes on. Your instinct is to put a stop to this behaviour and fast. But it doesn’t work that way.

Our children need our support the most when our patience is tested in these ways. Knowing where our children are developmentally helps us understand that they are acting out because of many possible reasons:

  • There is too much noise in the room that is overwhelming their sensory system and they just need it to stop immediately.
  • They are tired, hungry or sick which is making them very dysregulated.

  • They didn’t want to leave the place they were at and are very upset.

  • They didn’t want to leave the comfort of home to go to school that day because the teacher or kids at school make them feel very uncomfortable.

  • They are exploring emotions and get a kick out of seeing emotional reactions in others but don’t understand acceptable behaviour yet.

  • They don’t like being yelled at or scolded for things they are not in control of.

In other words, they are frustrated and can’t find a better way to express what they need because they lack the developmental capacity to use emotional signalling in a back-and-forth fashion to communicate. They might be stuck in catastrophic emotional reactions.

Focusing on the negative behaviour is like saying to our children, Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “I see you are frustrated. Here, let me make you more frustrated.” Imagine when we are in a class learning a new skill and the teacher focuses on what we cannot do and gets angry with us for what we cannot figure out. It’s not a pleasant feeling.

CLICK HERE for Dr. Stanley Greenspan on meltdowns and aggression.

Let’s instead show our children that we understand they are having a hard time and are here to help them figure out a way. In terms of intense frustration, Dr. Neufeld suggests saying, “I see you are frustrated. Let me help you find a way to get that frustration out.” In schools, he equates this to having ‘safe eruption rooms’ (rather than ‘calm down’ rooms) where a caring person is there to support them.

This does not mean that we don’t set limits.

Limits and structure are very important for our children. We don’t want our children hurting themselves or others. But the limits need to appropriate to developmental level. Our children’s development must support what we do. For instance, we wouldn’t expect a 2-year-old to share toys. Sharing is a skill that developmentally comes much later.

A child who feels understood and known will trust us and be much more eager to respond to our challenges out of their own volition. We will see more spontaneous initiations of interactions with us and children do climb ‘the development ladder’. We must keep our relationship in tact so our children feel safe to allow us to support their development.

Finally, once we can help our children master their functional emotional developmental capacities, they will be ready to thrive in academics. Dr. Stanley Greenspan explains why in one of his online radio shows below. FOR THE TRANSCRIPT CLICK HERE.

Respecting our children means having a good relationship with them, seeing the world from their eyes, allowing them to experience and express their emotions, following their natural interests in engaging and interacting with them, and being a loving, understanding guide to navigating this world. Next time we will explore limit setting at an appropriate developmental level. We will talk about how to set structure and limits appropriately and respectfully for our children.

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

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