DIR Expert Training Leader and mental health professional, Gene Christian returns to interview Daria Brown, the person behind Affect Autism. She has a Masters degree in Personality Psychology, holds an advanced provider certificate in DIR/Floortime from the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), and has been a researcher in the public sector in health and education for over 25 years.

I recommend listening to the YouTube video at 1.5X speed for ideal listening by clicking on the settings gear/wheel on the video playback, selecting ‘Playback speed’, then 1.5.

What brought you to this developmental approach called DIR/Floortime?

Our story starts when our son had severe brain inflammation at 28 months old and was hospitalized for over 3 months. The first few days after his seizures, I literally didn’t know if we were going home from the hospital the next day, or if he was going to die. Up until this time he had been on a typical developmental trajectory. It was quite a jolt because he had just started really communicating with us and then suddenly lost all of his speech and language and started having autistic behaviours.

By chance or divine intervention, I happened to watch the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news one night and saw the DIR/Floortime study done at York University with Dr. Stuart Shanker‘s team that showed astounding evidence for the power of play doing Floortime at home. At the start of the study, the child’s brains had more social anxiety and at the end they were more communicative and had less social anxiety.

I emailed everyone featured in the broadcast and asked if we could meet with them. I had already been taking parenting workshops of Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s about how nature has plans for how development unfolds. Like Dr. Greenspan and Gene Christian, Dr. Neufeld started out as a behaviourist and came to realize that the developmental approach is where we need to be. It spoke to me, too, so in the first few months, we read Engaging Autism and my husband said, “We need to make a website for parents because this should be available to everybody“.

How/why did the website start?

I decided if I was going to create a website I should have the DIR/Floortime certification so I took the courses. To date, I am the only parent who had completed the Advanced Certification which is typically done by professionals, so CEO Jeff Guenzel made me the Parent Advocate of ICDL. In this role, I can really bridge that gap between the professional lingo and what parents understand because I have a foot in both. I’ve seen both sides and I can bring to them the intentions from Greenspan’s mind as best as I can understand them.

I settled on getting certified through ICDL because I had established a relationship with Dr. Gil Tippy who is a Senior Advisor to ICDL. It was his live presentation of his on DIR/Floortime which I saw locally that truly gave me the hope and faith in this DIR model that I knew I could bring to other parents. He showed videos of children who had developmental challenges as young children and a decade later and the progress astounded me.

Getting different views from so many professionals in this multi-disciplinary approach only reinforced my faith in DIR/Floortime as the right approach because whether I consulted with an Occupational Therapist, a Psychologist, a Speech and Language Pathologist or another professional, I kept hearing the same thing from different angles from all of these professionals who have been clinicians for years seeing autistic kids. And through my training, hearing and reading Dr. Greenspan’s work from my courses and his radio shows, I kept learning. So through my podcasts I bring all of this to parents.

From everything I now know, I realize there were signs that my child was autistic from birth that professionals did not pick up, even in the rehab hospital when they interviewed me on his developmental history. He did not have that robust joint attention that Dr. Greenspan talked about and had tons of sensory issues. He breast fed every two hours, he required constant movement, and wouldn’t sit in a car seat or stroller. Our son is quite developmentally delayed in terms of typical development, but he is progressing wonderfully through the early social emotional capacities that the DIR Model describes exactly as all the experts I’ve consulted with described that he would! I want parents to see this.

What would you advise for parents who discover Floortime and are struggling to get engagement with their child?

I can say I’ve been there. I remember struggling to play with my child and feeling like he was in his own world. It really is a process for parents as much as it is for the children. In my own experience, and in my experience with other parents, I can say that it’s really a hard pill to swallow when you realize your child is going to be different than typical kids. It’s so not the mainstream in our society and it comes with extra challenges.

Our kids communicate differently from other kids so we really have to playfully entice those interactions in order to help them be understood. I would say don’t worry about that sense of urgency to ‘make things right’. Your child will always be behind other kids in some ways, and he might be ahead in other ways. They will be on a different developmental trajectory. This is the hardest for parents to accept at first because we feel such pressure to ‘catch our children up’ to other kids so we can mainstream them.

It’s hard to hear that because it may be different for your child. Every child is totally different. It’s not about fixing your child. It’s about getting to know your child and how you can bring out what they have to offer the world by helping them relate, communicate, and think. So many interventions out there don’t ever let our children know they can have a thought of their own. 

Dr. Tippy says that he had kids come to the Rebecca School with years of therapy who had the hardest time when the Floortime therapists wonder, “What do you want? What do you think?” because they’ve spent their entire life being told what to think and do. That’s not what I want for my child! I want him to share what’s inside of him and share what’s inside of him, and his thoughts, and he’s now doing that every minute of every day.

Yes, it’s challenging to have been the parent of a toddler for 7+ years. It’s draining. When he doesn’t want to go to bed and you go through every form of protest and he’s still not sleeping on his own at age 10, it’s hard. But when you bring a child into this world, it’s your job to get to know them and support and help them through this world. It’s been lower lows than I ever imagined I could have, but it’s also been higher highs.

It’s really hard for me to know what to say to parents. They should not panic and worry about the rush. There is no rush! Your child will develop as they develop. You cannot force a child to develop. They’re going to develop on their own timeline and you have to accept that, and that’s the hardest thing to get used to. 

Second, find the best experts that know what they’re doing to help coach you. I’m developing a service to do just that for parents. I’ve struggled for years now with, “How can I find a way to help parents in a way that I feel ethically OK with?” because I’m not a professional clinician who works with children and can diagnose kids. But a few parents have said to me, “You did all of this. You did all this research. You found all of these resources. I want to do what you did.” So that’s what I offer to parents.

Empowering parents with what they need

I give parents access to the DIR trainers and give them ideas. I show them videos of our son where he started and how he’s developed along the way and the interventions that we did, which is really just a developmental approach. You’re going to be spending money regardless. The evidence is out there that shows the developmental approach is the way to go. Play is where you experiment with your emotions. 

All the groundwork for the future is in play. We need to have that open play space where a child feels safe with somebody (i.e., the ‘R’ for Relationship), understanding that we’re going to facilitate interactions with the child, challenging them where they are at developmentally (i.e., the ‘D’ for Developmental). Floortime is about shared joy. It should be playful and fun, not a child sitting at a table screaming because they don’t want to do it is not helpful. The developmental approach is the right way to work with children.

Everybody wants to take your money. It really angers me that there are people who claim they can ‘fix’ our children’s autism and will charge large amounts of money. We’ve been there. When you have children who are kicking and hitting you it’s frustrating and you want it to stop. 

“We are more interested in seeing the child initiate than respond to some cue or stimulus.”

Gene Christian

We’ve tried many things from homeopathy and osteopathy (scams) to movement therapies (helpful) and more. Many might help a bit and some are hogwash. If you follow Science-Based Medicine’s website you can see the scams that are out there. It also angers me that so many professionals still talk about autism as a disorder and so negatively. Yes, it is a developmental disability and even self-advocates will say this but it should also be referred to as a developmental difference.

I have a bias, too. I will advocate for the developmental approach to the death! I believe it is the only way to work with children. It’s hard for parents. I get it. If parents believe that supplements help their children or other things that I don’t agree with, who am I to disagree? But what I can do is offer education and experience to those who are interested in learning about DIR/Floortime.

DIR experts can help you facilitate Floortime with your child. Everytime your child develops, your dance with your child changes. We are less concerned with behaviours and more concerned with why they are happening. How can I make this child feel secure enough so he doesn’t need to do these behaviours? It’s a process for parents to understand how important it is to allow the developmental process to unfold and to provide the conditions for this to happen without putting demands on the child every minute of every day.

Really seeing your child

Every person in the child’s life is constantly asking, “How are you? How old are you now? What grade are you in?” and bombarding our child with demands when their brain doesn’t work that way. Our son will bring up a story of something that happened three years ago seemingly out of the blue that relates to what they say or are asking about. It’s our job to help bridge that gap by sometimes translating for our child, but more so to help facilitate the relating and communicating between our children and others.

It will be a challenge for some parents and people in their lives to relate to their autistic children. But others are just naturals. I have a friend who met up with my son and me at a model train show. She saw my son flapping his arms chanting about the trains going through a tunnel and really saw him for who he is, while others stared as if what he was doing was wrong or looked at me like I should be stopping him. She said to me, “Look how excited he is. Look how much he loves this. Keep bringing him to these shows. This is what he needs.” She saw what I see.

Of course it’s difficult when your child smacks you across the face when you’re brushing their teeth, for instance. We can’t be saints 24/7. We can’t expect our child to understand the consequences of not brushing your teeth. I see parents who entice their children with rewards, but then what if the reward isn’t around? The developmental approach helps parents with embracing all of these challenges and struggles.

It’s never too late

It’s never too late to discover DIR/Floortime. In my podcast with Gene we discussed Floortime with a man in his 40’s. Dr. Gil Tippy has worked with adults in their 60’s and seen developmental progress. You can really get these affective reciprocal interactions happening, even if you’ve been in a rut and forgot about those preverbal signals for awhile. Brain plasticity exists throughout the lifespan. 

All of the latest neuroscience research really points to a developmental model, if not direct research for a developmental model. Research such as that of Dr. Torres describes how our children’s bodies prevent them from behaving in ways we’d expect, neurotypically. Dr. Greenspan’s son, Jake Greenspan lists a lot of the new research that points to the developmental approach on his website as well.

Being respectful of each other

The developmental model is a journey for us too as we discover our own holes in our development. We all grow together as a family. As we learn about the functional emotional developmental capacities laid out by the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model and do Floortime, we see our child develop and understand our own vulnerabilities. In one of my podcasts with Gene, we wondered how many of us have the capacity to stay in a heated debate and remain calm and continue to have a back-and-forth interaction about it? That’s the fourth capacity in the model.

People who are closed off to their emotions and have a hard time accepting all of their child’s emotions will have a hard time with this model. Those who can go there and be respectful will go far. Gene was first attracted to the work of Dr. Stanley Greenspan and the DIR model from an article in Zero to Three that talked about following the child’s lead. All of the progress begins when we follow our child’s intentions and enter their emotional world. What a rich beautiful road it is to follow, Gene echoes.

“Dr. Greenspan always said that children will progress at different rates, but they will ALL become warmly related. This creates the pathway for development.”

Gene Christian

How many hours of Floortime do you do?

Gene asked me how many hours of Floortime we do per week with our son. It was hard at first. I wanted that instruction manual of what to do. It took awhile to throw that script out the window and just be with my son, waiting, watching, and wondering what he is interested in and then jumping in. I found that my husband was better with play and I was better with emotional issues and discipline. I could co-regulate with him when he was upset better than my husband could.

Dr. Greenspan described Floortime as a family approach and how we need to focus on our strengths. Who does what best? When my little guy is distressed, he only wants Mama. But for fun building train layouts, or at the amusement or water parks, Dada is the one! But this is where Andrea Davis and colleagues’ guide to Floortime book comes in handy. It’s a starting point for parents to start Floortime.

To answer the question, though, it is less important to me how many hours per day and it’s more about how are you seeing your child and interacting with your child every minute of every day because you can do a 20-minute play session and then be a drill sargeant the rest of the day and ignore them when they’re distressed. Of course, you can’t be “Here I am! I’m here to play with you!” every minute of every day. Of course you’re going to have to get through life. 

We’ve been able to put supports in place where our son has good DIR/Floortime therapists with him during the day. Then when he’s home, it’s more about seeing how he’s feeling, understanding what he needs, trying to interact with him, and bringing out those rich interactions. It’s about how I attune to him and interact with him. I don’t even think about it as Floortime anymore. I accept what he’s saying to me and make the effort to understand him.

For instance, if our son is splashing in the bathtub, we can of course say “Stop that!” and we do oftentimes. Or, I can exclaim, “Oh! We really have an urge to splash!” then close the shower curtain and make a game of it. It’s about facilitating what he wants to do–at least some of the time if not frequently in the beginning–instead of it being a behaviour problem.

My husband is a lot more lenient when it comes to making a mess with the toys and just having fun. But then all the toys are shoved under the bed. Our son says he wants Owlette. But oh no! She’s stuck under the bed! Now this becomes a great Floortime problem. I can’t reach her! What are we going to do? It’s really about how you learn to see and understand your child and then create playful interactions and appropriate challenges around that.

Gene wishes he had my website to send parents back when he was still doing direct therapy. I thank him for saying this interview has been a goldmine. I would love feedback on how to make the website easier to understand through Comments below or email via the Contact link. Thank you to Gene Christian for his overwhelming support and endorsement of Affect Autism and for taking the time to allow me to share my passion for this developmental approach and the purpose behind the website.

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

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