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What is Attunement?

Attunement, or emotional connectedness, is an essential component of any relationship, and as such, is probably the most essential part of Floortime. Attunement is being ‘in tune’ with your child’s emotional state, being ‘in it’ with him or her, and your child feeling that (s)he is understood in that moment.

Attunement comes naturally to some people and is quite difficult for others. When we meet new people for the first time, sometimes we just have that feeling that “this person completely gets me“. This is attunement in that moment. Other times we get frustrated when a person just doesn’t seem to get it. We need to be the former for our children with developmental delays.

A large part of life for our children is not being able to communicate with us what is going on for them. This causes a tremendous amount of anxiety for them. The more we can be attuned with what they are experiencing in each moment, the more we can help to ease their anxiety.

What Happens With Attunement?

The complimentary .pdf document entitled, “10 Things You Can Do Now to help your child” that you receive when you sign up for blog updates at Affect Autism provides you with tips on applying the developmental approach with your child right away. When you are attuned with your child, all of these tips follow naturally and automatically.

When you are emotionally connected with your child, you automatically and intuitively…

  • Understand how his or her sensory profile affects him or her and you respectfully modify the environment in whatever way you can to ease the stress to your child so (s)he can remain in a regulated state of shared attention.
  • Make space for all of his or her emotional expressions whenever possible. You don’t try to control the child’s behaviour or thwart what (s)he is feeling. You naturally co-regulate with your child because you want your child’s emotional experience to be validated.
  • Accept all behaviour as communication and attempt to understand what your child is communicating to you in that moment, no matter how aversive the behaviour might be. You intuitively understand that doing this will promote trust and understanding between you.
  • Respect where your child is at, developmentally. You understand what (s)he is capable of at his/her current developmental level and while you always want to aim for his/her highest potential, you are patient and set appropriate limits and expectations.
  • Slow down and stretch out your interactions with your child because you understand that this will help him or her process what is happening and give him or her the time it takes for him or her to respond. You use a lot more non-verbal communication rather than words because you can see how your child responds to your facial expressions, gestures and affect which brings you into the moment of what (s)he is taking in and understanding or relating with.
  • Try to prolong the interactions you have together using techniques such as “playing dumb” and “playful obstruction” because you want to pull your child into a shared world that is fun.
  • Self-reflect on how your interactions went each day with your child to evaluate how you related and communicated.
  • Do everything you can to have fun with your child by fostering shared pleasure and playfulness in all of your interactions.

Are You Feeling Emotionally Connected?

When you think about your relationship with your child, do you feel attuned with him or her? If you are struggling, take advice from the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan who created DIR/Floortime: He would suggest that you just sit back and observe your child with nothing else in your mind.

Observing your child means you are not judging his or her behaviour or holding an agenda in your head of what you want him or her to do. You are simply watching and noticing what your child is focused on, doing, or interested in. That’s it! If you can clear your mind of everything else, you should be able to attune yourself to the child.

Look at the photo at the top of this blog post. Our son is enjoying a moment of shared pleasure with his therapists who are splatting shaving cream, which he thinks is hilarious. They are not worried about making a mess or if he stays seated and quiet. They are not concerned with how much noise they may or may not be making*. They are not each doing their own thing. They are all having fun and sharing this experience together in the moment.

* Please note that our son is a sensory seeker and craves auditory input. For children who are sensory avoidant to sound, you would obviously be more concerned about being loud.

Specific Examples of Emotional Connectedness

Personally, I find that I notice emotional connectedness–or lack thereof–in moments of transition. This is a time when our son is transitioning from one activity or place to another. It could mean going to school, leaving school, coming to the dinner table, or going to bed. It could mean being in a new place that is unfamiliar or meeting someone new.

For our son, he will tend to tense up and grab my hand tightly. He will slow down or even stop and pause. He will focus his eyes and start to mumble quiet scripts to himself. All of these signs I’ve noticed because I tune in to what he is experiencing in moments that are stressful to him.

If I rush him through his experience while he is experiencing this stress, I am ignoring what he is communicating to me through these signs. If I am in a hurry for him to enter into a new, unfamiliar restaurant or home to meet up with friends or family members, without respecting his experience of anxiety, he will have no choice but to react in a way I likely find unpleasant to deal with–perhaps a tantrum.

Rather, I want to respect him and be attuned to what he is experiencing. I can slow down and talk about what will happen in advance. I can hold out my hand for him to grab when he is ready. I can encourage him to come patiently without making him feel forced or rushed, and I can offer him an escape if he is feeling overwhelmed, all in advance of starting this transition. That is tuning in to his emotional experience.

Some examples of attunement from Maude Le Roux, OTR/L, SIPT, RCTC, DIR® Certificate, Clinical Director

Maude LeRoux gives some great examples (‘first’ and ‘second’ ideas) of attunement in her recent blog, “5 Important Ideas to Ease Going Back to School

Do you feel like you have a better grasp on what it means to be attuned, or emotionally connected to your child? Please give us your examples of your moments of joys or struggles being emotionally connected with your child in the comments section below.

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

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