Colette Ryan joins us this week to discuss meaning making. She is a Expert Training Leader in the Developmental, Individual-differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model with the International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), the Parent Support Specialist at ICDL’s DIR Home Program, a New York State endorsed infant mental health therapist, and an infant mental health fellow at Montclair State University in New Jersey working with Dr. Gerry Costa.

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Meaning Making with Colette Ryan

by Affect Autism |

What do we mean by Meaning Making?

With everyone at home during Covid-19, Colette and I are both hearing a lot of parents struggling with getting their children to do things that they want them to do, such as online schooling. This prompted ICDL to offer a recent mini-seminar on Meaning Making. What we mean by this is exactly what it sounds like. If our kids don’t have a meaning for what we are asking of them, it won’t make sense to them.

In the photo for today’s blog post you’ll see something you may not recognize: a pandanus. It may not have meaning to you. However, if Colette were to say that it tastes a bit like a cross between a pineapple and a banana, then you can put some meaning to it and understand that it is some kind of fruit and imagine what it might taste like. Similarly, when we teach children about an apple it is much more meaningful to have them hold and taste it versus showing them a cue card with a picture of an apple on it.

Making Assumptions and Cognitive Load

This concept of ‘meaning making’ made me reflect on how frequently we speak with our children assuming they know what we are talking about, and expecting them to understand us. We do this frequently around concepts of time, for instance, when we refer to 3 weeks, months or hours from now when our children don’t yet have a concept of time. Understanding how our children make meaning helps us to understand what they aren’t comprehending.

Another thing we can do is give children instructions assuming that they have meaning and can sequence what we’re asking of them. If you ask them to get their shoes and coat, for instance, they have to have meaning for shoes and coat, but also then have to sequence which might be too taxing for them. We might need to break it into two requests. First, get your shoes. Once they’ve done that, then ask to get their coat.

Parents also often tell their children to calm down, not realizing that their child may not know what calm means. For a child who’s regular state is very upregulated, calm may not have meaning. And when the child might be calm, are we labelling that state for the child so they can learn that this is what calm means? There are phrases that we use that as adults with the capacity for reflective thinking we can figure out that our children are not yet able to.

Reading Cues

Another important aspect of meaning making is cue reading. We need to be good cue readers as care providers for our children. For example, when my son flaps his hands, I know that he is very excited. I am reading that cue. For another child, it could be they are stressed when they flap their hands. Similarly our children get meaning making from our cues. From our affect, children can pick up if something is enjoyable or unpleasurable, for instance.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many parents have tried to get their children do participate in online schooling. However, if the meaning a child has for a screen has only been to say hi to Grandma or to watch TV, then online learning is a new experience with no meaning. There is not enough affect and little meaning in it for them. Additionally, if the caregivers are stressed about the online learning, the children pick up that this is not fun. 

Parents can adjust their expectations about what the kids should be or could be doing by accepting where their children are at developmentally, respecting their individual differences, and being good cue readers. The cue might not be expected, but there’s meaning behind everything our kids say and do. 

Shared Experiences

I gave the example from a past podcast where a child exclaimed, “It’s raining!” whenever anyone said “Be careful!” due to a past experience of rushing to the school bus when it began pouring rain on a field trip. This is an experience that gave the child meaning of what it means to be careful. 

I gave another example of my son forming meaning around making a silly mistake when I mislabeled a model train at a toy store. Every time we make an error he will bring that up because it has meaning for him, and that it’s ok to make mistakes and laugh about it. Especially with older children, we need to think about activities they might like to do and focus on what is meaningful to them. We can create experiences that a child can pull from to grab/inspire ideas from.

Using Floortime to Make Meaning

Curiosity When we don’t know about our child’s interest, we can be genuinely curious and ask about it to get back-and-forth interactions. Saying that you don’t know anything about their interest is dismissive and they can only take that you don’t want to have anything to do with it, so they won’t talk to you about it. Instead we can pause and say “Tell me more” with exaggerated affect to get that interest up.

Challenge We can challenge the child to reflect with us, which will eventually lead to reflecting with a peer around an interest they have. I used an example of my son talking about being eliminated in his video game. I have meaning of it as negative so I said, “Eliminated? Isn’t that bad?” He said, “No, Mama, it’s good!” so I asked why. He explained that it’s a good thing because he gets to make a new car. His meaning of being eliminated is good.

Expand We can use our child’s interest and expand it to other areas. If the interest is Minecraft, we can add it to math skills: If I go this fast, I get this many points. We can expand it to writing: Let’s write a story about what happens at the end of the game, or change the end of the story if it’s a movie the child likes. We try to make meaning beyond their interest. For example, with trains, there’s counting the wheels or coach cars, discussing the speed of the train, geography, train schedules, what will we see on the train ride, etc. We have to help kids make multiple meanings to allow for flexibility, which comes with higher developmental capacities.

Role Play Before our children reach the higher capacities, we can pave the road by doing some role playing in the safety of being with us to have a safe experience:

  • If our children have a meaning for what people are talking about, then they can feel safe and regulated, and be ready to engage and interact around it. However, if they don’t have a meaning for what’s being discussed with peers, for example, they get in trouble because they don’t know what is being talked about and will feel dysregulated. They are no different from us!
  • We can practice being a peer who might have a different idea than they do, and have our child get used to taking another perspective, or coming up with another way to think about their interest. This experience will carry more meaning than instructing what the child should say if someone says ____ or ____ to them.
  • We can safely play out anger, frustration, happiness, excitement at home through role playing. I gave the example of my son watching Daniel Tiger when Katerina the Cat got angry and exclaimed, “Meow! Meow!” and how using that meaning has helped my son understand frustration in others.

I hope you enjoyed this topic and took some valuable insights from it. If so, please share this post on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to comment below with any relevant experiences, comments or questions. Thank you to Colette Ryan for taking the time to discuss Meaning Making with us!

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

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