I’m thrilled to have clinical psychologist, Andrea Davis back for the next two weeks to review a Floortime session of me playing with my son as a follow-up from last year’s bowling session. Dr. Davis is the founder and director of the Greenhouse Therapy Center in Pasadena, California where she practices the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model. She is the president of the Floortime Coalition of California. I am so excited to have her back reviewing my son’s developmental progress since last year–and it has been tremendous progress!

Facilitating Emotional and Logical Thinking

by Affect Autism | affectautism.com

Note: The sections showing the Floortime video in the video podcast are audio only

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Looking at the adult in the interaction

Dr. Davis says that she is so excited and happy to see the progress and the robust engagement we have playing together due to our strong relationship. While she loves seeing all that my son can do, she is always watching the adult in the interaction. As a psychologist, she is often seeing caregivers and writing about parenting from a DIR/Floortime perspective. The Floortime model begins by looking at any child, at any particular snapshot in time, she says, and asking, “Who is this person?” and where are they in this moment developmentally?

We all vary in where we are on the early developmental capacities from day-to-day, and within each day, depending on the situation. For children on the autism spectrum, it is so important to meet the child where they are at in that moment, in that setting and Dr. Davis says that today’s Floortime video example really shows that. She likes that it demonstrates what the pyramid (shown) from her book, The User’s Guide to the DIR Model, describes: what does the adult do to get the child to one of the levels that Dr. Greenspan talked about in the DIR Model?

Dr. Davis explains that I attune to him which helps his regulation, I connect with him to support his engagement, I respond to him which helps him interact with me, and I expand on his communication pushing him up the developmental ladder into the fourth developmental capacity. She also sees me pretending in play which supports his symbolic play, Dr. Davis continues, and in this video in particular, she sees me intentionally and strategically challenging him a lot to facilitate his emotional thinking and logical thinking.

The strategies in the book help Dr. Davis clarify what the adult is doing if she’s working with a parent, or a staff member–especially someone new to the model. The short two-word titles of the strategies Dr. Davis will be referring to here reminds us what is the intention to help us go further in the relationship and move up that developmental ladder. So while Dr. Davis sees me aiming at the higher capacities with my son, she sees me using all the strategies all the way up the pyramid right from the base that helps us build up to there.

Strategies promoting social-emotional development

Dr. Davis points out some of the main strategies from the book that she sees me using throughout this 36-minute long video clip of me playing with my son:

  • 3.4 Sportscaster/narrator Describing what I see and letting him know I am attending to him, which supports his continuous engagement.
  • 2.2 Gaze tracking Tracking what he’s really thinking about by watching his eyes to get on board with him, then expand from there.
  • 1.2 Notice and adjust When he gets a little wound up and overly excited at the edge of his tolerance, I drop my voice, adjusting the volume of my voice and slowing down to balance his upregulation.
  • 4.7 Genuine self I bring in a bit of emotion like a peer would, such as when I ask, “Do I get some PlayDoh?” and “What do I make?
  • 4.3 Feign ignorance By playing confused or clueless, I help him make his intentions known to others.

Throughout the video, Dr. Davis says that we see his very strong capacity 3 and a robust capacity 4, which was most exciting to her. Despite all the visual distractions of his favourite characters and PlayDoh, he keeps studying my face–not because I said to look at me–but because he wants to know what my reaction is to what I’m saying; he is calibrating his thoughts, feelings and responses to the reaction on my face. I’ve emphasized through affect what I’m feeling and this helps him, so it makes him want to look and see what I’m feeling. Dr. Greenspan said that emotion-based learning facilitates the integration of the different regions of the brain and that’s what Floortime is all about.

About the Floortime Video

The first few minutes of this video were shown in my recent presentation at the ICDL 2020 virtual conference as the endpoint in My Biggest Revelations from being a Floortime Parent because this is where my son is now. The presentation is available to members and shows his developmental progress from six months old to present day. Today’s entire Floortime video is also available to members on the Patreon site.

It’s really amazing for me to hear from an Expert DIR Training Leader where my son is developmentally, because I have my ideas as an Advanced DIR Certificate holder but I do not have clinical experience with lots of kids like Dr. Davis does over many years.

While Dr. Davis describes strategies I’m using, they may or not be intentional on my part because I’m just doing these strategies naturally as I’ve assimilated Floortime into the way I am with my son everyday. I’m not thinking in my head, “I’m going to use Strategy 3.4.” I’m thinking of the purpose of the strategy, which is that I want my child to engage with me and interact and play with me, and this is what’s naturally coming out of me to make that happen.

It’s not necessary to memorize every strategy from the book. It is more a way for Dr. Davis to help point out to parents or practitioners starting out what they are already doing–by naming the strategies in simple two-word names that she sees them doing, so they can feel empowered and have a starting point. From there, they can gain confidence in supporting their child’s development through Floortime every day realizing that they do have an internalized, incorporated sense of what to do and why. By naming precisely what we do, it helps us.

Floortime video break-down

Video set-up: My son has recently started playing Mario Kart and loves it. He is full of ideas and wants to make a race track with Mario Kart characters out of PlayDoh on the table with me. Dr. Davis says being at the table sitting 90 degrees from each other, we can see each other and it makes it easy to play together, enjoying the experience together.

01:30 My son suggests using blue PlayDoh to make Peach’s pink dress. This shows flexibility and Dr. Davis says that he is incorporating my mind.

02:30 My son says he “unlocked a Mercedes” so I gently and quietly challenge him by asking what that means. It takes a few attempts at an answer but I stick with my challenge when he finally explains that he gets ten coins. Dr. Davis says I’m helping him to make his own mind clearer to me, which supports theory of mind, his thinking about thinking, and thinking about others, or his social comprehension. I let him know where I’m stuck all through this playtime, she points out.

Dr. Davis likes that when I asked what it means, he looks away and very carefully considers how to explain it because I made it so enticing and comfortable for him, without pressure, which allows him to try something that’s a little bit hard. I’m using my Genuine Self (strategy 4.7) by being puzzled so he can adapt his communication to my feelings. I mentioned that this technique was modelled for me by Dr. Gil Tippy in a live presentation about 8 years ago.

I asked Dr. Davis if I could have challenged a little more by asking my son what does 10 coins mean? What does that have to do with unlocked, rather than explaining to him, “Oh you get 10 coins then can unlock the car? That’s the rules of the game?” but Dr. Davis says that is fine and is the 6.10 Event planner strategy where together we’re organizing and planning. A long quizzing would make him mentally shut down and make him tired.

Instead, by sprinkling these strategies in, Dr. Davis says, then dropping down and joining him with the 3.4 Sportscaster/narrator strategy, it allows him to feel like this is mutual and fun, not a test. I alternate challenging and supporting, which is moving up and down the developmental ladder.

03:30 Dr. Davis says here I am using Strategy 6.2 Highlight emotions to help promote his emotional thinking. He’s showing that he’s a great mechanical thinker with all of these ideas he’s sequencing and planning now, so I begin to wonder about how his character is feeling. He humours me by saying, “Good” then changes the subject, which I acknowledge so he feels heard. I then 3.5 Playfully persist by narrating, wondering if Peach is feeling excited about the race, which Dr. Davis says is gently planting the seeds of 6A. Emotional thinking by making it easier for him with a yes/no question.

I then used 6.4 Encouraging empathy by helping him imagine that she is excited about the race. He’s not quite ready for that yet, so he jumps ahead to his idea. But Dr. Davis points out that later in the video he goes there and that is important to realize that we might have to try a strategy 20 or 30 times before we see a child respond. We can’t conclude that they are unable just because they don’t the first time we try. When we plant the seed, it simmers and we see the results later, she adds.

I also pointed out how much my son is gesturing when he describes the characters. Dr. Davis said that Dr. Stanley Greenspan brought us back to the Words-Action-Affect so they would play so fully in their body, mind, and imagination, using their whole brain. Here, she adds, I’m using 6.10 Event planner and 6.11 Organize and summarize and am challenging him when I ask, “But I thought you wanted me to make the trophies?” He engages, pauses and thinks and then communicates, “Bowser Jr. and then the trophies!” This is helping him sequence and logically state his ideas so another child won’t get lost and move on from playing with him to something easier.

04:30 Next, going back into 6.2 Highlight emotions, which is something we can do at dinnertime or at bedtime when highlighting our day. I ask my son how the characters are feeling and wondering who’s going to win. It makes the whole point that Floortime moves from just working on relational abilities to working on processing emotions around difficult topics like winning and losing. Many children have a hard time processing feelings when they don’t win. This is preparing his coping resources for thinking differently about winning and losing.

He is able to articulate that the character might be sad or angry if they don’t win and I bring in that role playing voice of being angry, highlighting the emotions of what he’s thinking about. We have a purpose behind this play. We want to move into how people are feeling and he can when we give him this support, playing what he wants to play, narrating his thoughts, joining him, and then he can move into the harder things of empathy, wondering what it would be like to win or lose then reflect on his feelings about winning or losing.

Playing Purposefully

I was really thinking about how to get him to move into more emotional themes in his basic imaginary play and Dr. Davis says this is where we’ll go next with him, using more animation of the characters, to engage for a bit longer to dive into the story as if he is in the story, imagining, and creating from there. Right now, she explains, she is doing a lot of set design and prop planning while I’m doing 5.3 Thicken the plot and 5.2 Animate (Bring the characters to life), which Dr. Davis wants to see me doing a lot more of.

By becoming one of the characters myself, I can invite my child to then become one himself. He has to feel the feelings of the story, then think about the feelings of the story. 

Then he’s able to think about the feelings in his own life and be more resilient and robust when his own big emotions hit him because he can stop, reflect, and think about them, too.

I pointed out how important Dr. Davis’ point about playing purposefully is. In my Biggest revelations from being a Floortime parent presentation I showed a 2017 video where I was planting these seeds with my son by mimicking the emotions of trains and here, three years later, he’s finally starting to get there.

It can be slow progress, and I never would have imagined 8 years ago that it would take so long to get to the higher functional emotional developmental capacities with my son, but he has continued to progress and parents need to see this and not give up or get impatient with development. Dr. Davis adds that he needs these stages to be able to get to the ‘name it to tame it‘ strategy of calming himself down.

Once he can start to feel the eruption of emotion in his body he will start to be able to recognize and remember he’s felt it before and can calm down with Mom’s help, or by remembering my help co-regulating with him so he can begin to self-regulate rather than melt down. Dr. Davis wants to encourage parents of non speaking kids too, because they see this progress with them, too, using devices to speak once they can communicate the ideas they were having.

Part 2 coming next week…

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week where Dr. Davis will review the rest of the Floortime video. It would be great to read constructive feedback, related experiences, comments or questions in the Comments section below about your own Floortime experiences. If you enjoyed this post please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. Stay tuned for part 2 of this review next week!

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

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