This week I’m speaking with clinical psychologist, Dr. Amanda Kriegel from Floortime Atlanta and Morgan Weissman from the Rebecca School about their presentation at the recent DIR/Floortime conference which was entitled, “The “R” in DIR: The Heart of Supporting Connection and Growth“. Dr. Kriegel is also a mother of two teens and has been on the Board of Directors for the International Council on Development and Learning, the home of DIR/Floortime, for five years. Morgan Weissman is an Occupational Therapist and a Floortime consultant at the Rebecca School in Manhattan and also works with families privately through Occuplay. Both are DIR Expert Training Leaders.
The Heart of DIR/Floortime: The 'R' and Genuine Affect
It’s all about genuine affect within the relationship
I created Affect Autism to help parents learn how to apply DIR/Floortime and my first blog post was It’s all about Affect because we use affect to affect our child’s development. Today we’ll talk about genuine affect and bringing out our authentic selves with our children, and how the ‘R’, or Relationship, is really the vehicle in that process. I vividly remember learning about Floortime by reading Engaging Autism and watching videos but as other parents tell me all the time, I get stuck when applying this knowledge to my own child.
There are a lot of Floortime videos using ‘over-the-top’ affect to engage children which felt natural for me to do, but not for my husband. That stereotypical, young, female ‘Kindergarten teacher’, ‘sing-song’ affect doesn’t have to be the way you use affective communication in Floortime. Dr. Kriegel says that we talk about following the child’s lead or enticing the child into an interaction. As training leaders they see that people think of affect as a very, big, large thing that gets the child’s attention. When you’re first starting out, that’s great if it works to get the child’s attention. But what gets lost, sometimes, when we’re telling people to do many sessions each day, is that you can’t keep up at that energy level.
You’re getting, oftentimes, more of a reaction from the child when you go big and over-the-top, and not necessarily a connection. We really want to encourage people to figure out how to relate and interact and pull the child in using different types of affect, by matching where the child is at rather than going really big or really high.
Morgan adds that we spend so much time figuring out the child’s individual profile but we also have to consider our own profile and style of communicating–not just with your child, but what you’re like as a communicator across many different contexts: How do you use your language to communicate? Your voice? Are you a person who likes to talk a lot or be more passive and use gestures? How can we bring our authentic selves into our relationship with our kids because they are so aware and can usually tell if we are uncomfortable or exhausted.
Occupational therapist, Stephanie Peters at ICDL’s DIR Institute said that yes, we want to draw our children in, but we also want them to know that they can draw us in as well. If you can’t be yourself with your child, it will be hard to have that authentic connection with your child. Morgan says that she works with so many speech therapists and sees how they communicate so naturally with the students, using a natural cadence and rhythmicity. You don’t have to be over-the-top with affect although you may use that kind of affect at times.
Building on the connection you have
Dr. Kriegel says that parents know their children best. When she was mentored by Dr. Barbara Dunbar, Dr. Dunbar would ask parents to come back next time with a list of things you do with your child where you feel connected. They never had anyone come back with nothing. Parents would say it was at bathtime, reading books together, or watching the leaves fall. It might be doing little piggy after a diaper change, or singing while swinging. Next, they try to build on what’s already there and expand on that.
Morgan adds that it’s about finding shared interests and experiences together. It’s not just the interest of the caregiver or the interest of the child. You might join one or the other or create something new, even if it’s enjoying a theme song of a program your child enjoys. You might hum the melody, and that lets the child know that you’re interested in what they’re interested in, and that feels good that somebody is interested in my interests and wants to learn more.
I gave an example of how my son recently started playing Mario Kart and loves the songs, so we listen to them whenever we are in the car. Then, at home he’ll ‘hum’ parts of the song and I will join in and hum as well. I won’t take over and hum the entire tune or else he’ll yell, “Don’t sing, Mama!” I let him be the director, as Dr. Stanley Greenspan would say to do. Morgan comments that it’s such a wonderful routine of predictability for him to share that experience in the car that then carries into time at home and allows us to have these Floortime moments anywhere.
The 2020 ICDL DIR/Floortime conference in November was themed, “Floortime All the Time and Everywhere” and I didn’t realize how much I did that, including Floortime in the car, for example, until after seeing all of the comments about my presentation. Morgan gave me a great idea of how I can continue to nudge my son’s development now with our Mario Kart songs playlist by including a song of my choice in there. He will protest and want his song, but I can say, “Hey! I want a turn!” or Amanda suggests saying, “I just want to hear the beat drop first!” and Morgan suggests being silly saying, “Oh! How did that song get in there?“
Morgan asserts that it’s important that parents take care of their needs, too, after I added that sometimes on road trips I’ll tell my son assertively that I need ‘Mama’s music’ now so I can sing along and stay awake to drive. Dr. Kriegel says that inserting something that we want instead might go well and it might not, but it’s about relating around the event. She adds that some of what we do in Floortime is counterintuitive because we often ask parents to rock the boat and try something that might dysregulate our children into a meltdown, which is hard when you are with someone you care about so much.
‘Pennies in the bank’
Dr. Kriegel says that the stronger your relationship with your child, the more risk you can take. Dr. Platzman has called this having ‘pennies in the bank’. You can do the rupture and repair when you have a strong connection. When you’re first starting out, she continues, you might have to hang out in there world for a long time before you can say, “Oh! Not trains again!“, even if you do end up playing trains again. It’s putting that challenge out there.
Morgan had mentioned being silly and that’s an important part of challenging. Laughter and playfulness is a wonderful way to connect. John Carpente, among others, have mentioned that people sometimes view play as not being therapeutic. But it’s these moments of connection that we’re after in Floortime. I added that as my relationship with my son has developed along with him moving up the developmental ladder, I’ve felt like I could be more of my genuine self because I’m walking on eggshells less as he can tolerate more.
Dr. Kriegel suggests you can also use those challenges to pull the child in by saying, “Let’s wait for the beat to drop together” so it’s a shared experience. Morgan adds that while we are aware of the intent our child shows us, we need to be aware of our own interoception, or how we feel inside, so we can be the best we can be for the child. She gives the example of an energetic person not wanting to sit and play trains needing to go out for a walk or some aerobic activity to be able to then sit and play trains if need be to match the child where they are at.
Making space for natural growth and being together
There’s been such a focus on intellectual development, test scores, and school readiness that people forget that kids need social-emotional development which happens through play. It’s hard for some parents to move away from using every moment as a teaching moment, Dr. Kriegel offers. Whether it’s asking about colours or numbers, or “What does the cow say?“, questions don’t lead to interactions. They just add anxiety by needing to make sure kids look or behave a certain way and know things. It’s more doing than being.
Amanda adds that we need to have that space for natural growth rather than putting pressure on in every moment. Morgan said that the speech department did a presentation for parents at the Rebecca School called, “What if the cow doesn’t say ‘moo’?” and how she thought it was a brilliant way to show those new to the model not to ask questions that there’s a specific answer to.
Dr. Greenspan would say that asking questions with no set response gives insight into what they’re thinking and what meaning they are making. It can produce a lot of anxiety when children think there is a right answer and can stop them from communicating what they’re thinking. They always say at the Rebecca School that there’s no wrong idea in Floortime.
Thinking something’s right or wrong gets in the way of making the connection richer.
Affect comes with being your authentic self
Dr. Naseef mentioned that he inspires fathers–who stereotypically want to solve problems–to relax and connect affectively with their child playfully, the way he sees Dads play with their dogs in the sense of having fun together, rather than needing to be the stern disciplinarian. A father, ICDL’s executive director, Jeff Guenzel, mentioned at the DIR/Floortime Conference closing ceremonies that a lightbulb really went on for him when he stopped doing things for his children, and started being with them.
Morgan says start by asking yourself what your favourite thing to do with your child is, no matter the age? When do you feel the most connected? It could be building blocks, or drawing together, but it might also be watching the baseball game together. You might have a special cheer when someone gets a hit. It will be unique for each relationship. She thinks about Dr. Greenspan’s Learning Tree where you have the roots, the trunk of the tree, the branches and leaves, and then the sun which is the affect that enhances everything.
Affect enhances everything. It’s not just used when you’re working on the sensory system. It’s not just used for the capacities. It’s used for everything. The affect you bring to any situation is what will enhance and create that meaning and intention.
English as a second language
Dr. Greenspan encouraged parents to speak in their native language because that’s where they are more natural in their affective communication with their child. It goes back to the authentic self, Dr. Kriegel says. In your native language, your warmth, presence, and being is in its most authentic state and the child reads that. Morgan works with many children of diverse families and cultures in New York City and she said it’s always about learning what that looks like for each child. It’s not about having parents do Floortime the way they do at school. It’s about finding how affect naturally works in their culture that they are comfortable with.
Learning is through experience
I gave an example of going on tours of model trains in people’s homes for the past many years and how my son always remembered the reactions of the owners when their trains derailed or didn’t work. One man groaned, “Oh, come on!” and my son thought that was hilarious and uses that expression to this day. Morgan says that is how we learn feelings and emotions: by seeing them in others, mirroring them, and experiencing them across different contexts. ‘Feelings charts’ aren’t developmentally how feelings are learned in humans.
Dr. Glovinsky talked about this with me in our interoception podcast: how emotion charts can be a cognitive base for labelling emotions, but you don’t actually learn them that way. If my son says his classmate was ‘in the red zone’, Morgan wonders how my son was experiencing and feeling inside, watching those emotions in his friend. There’s so much more meaning that can be conveyed behind a picture or a colour. These are just accessories that enhance the affective-based education.
Dr. Kriegel says that affect isn’t just all happy and excited. When children play through emotions, we need to allow them to play out whatever emotions they need to, in a safe environment. Of all the autistic individuals she has met, if anything they feel more intensely than others and this plays out as meltdowns as children and shut down as adults. We’re not presuming competence to say, “use your words” then show an angry face”. It is not congruent to see people have authentic emotional reactions then stop the feelings, get in your brain, and point to or pick out a picture.
“It’s hard for this person to read non-verbal cues, so we’re going to go to this cognitive place and teaching” isn’t how it works.
Morgan shares that Kim Barthel talks about how infants experience disgust as the first visible emotion within a few weeks of birth. Let’s go back and figure out how we’re going to use affect, figuring out their sensory systems and their communication preferences and the relationship to help them read affect and cues through emotional signalling.
If you’re a caregiver or practitioner struggling with this, here’s what you can do:
- Work on reading and sending cues to be more attuned to your child.
- Join in your child’s play and when you join, make sure they know you’ve joined–not like a wrecking ball, but with gestures and affective anticipation. Hear an example of doing this in the podcast at the 53 min mark.
- Start with the experiences you and the child enjoy doing together where you’re feeling warmly connected.
- Create more times to have these experiences and to build on them. If it’s bath time, then do more water play.
- Bring these experiences into other parts of the day.
- Video tape these moments if you can without it being intrusive to the interaction.
- Reflect: Bring these videos to your team and wonder what about this experience supports their sensory profile, or is pleasurable, or what affect does this experience create? Think about their motor planning and their language.
- It’s a lot of trial and error. Keep trying different things until you find that connection. Always be kind and respectful, trying to understand the individual’s point of view, and be kind to yourself. If it doesn’t work, try to wonder why it didn’t work.
- Keep in mind we all have our own emotions and our own good days and bad days. It doesn’t mean there’s regression. What didn’t work yesterday, might work today or tomorrow. Trust your gut if it’s not a good day to try to something new.
- Be ok with using a range of emotions and focus on building that warm, strong relationship with your child. Be authentic, loving, and responsive.
Thank you to Dr. Amanda Kriegel and Morgan Weissman for taking the time to bring this important topic to us! If you found it helpful in your understanding of applying Floortime please share this post on Facebook or Twitter. If you have any comments, questions, or relevant experiences to share please post them to the Comments section below. Thank you for reading/listening/watching!
Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!