This week’s topic stems from my take-aways from my family’s visit to The Floortime Center almost five years ago when Jake Greenspan told us that attention seeking behaviours are actually emotion seeking behaviours. This week’s guests to revisit this topic are Morgan Weissman, an Occupational Therapist and a Floortime consultant at the Rebecca School in Manhattan who also works with families privately through Occuplay and Melissa Sinacori who is a certified teacher and part of the Floortime department at the Rebecca School. Both are DIR Expert Training Leaders.

Emotion seeking and saying "No!"

by Affect Autism |

Parental response to ‘attention seeking’

Many parents are ‘triggered’ by children’s ‘attention-seeking’ behaviours. Melissa says that it makes it easier for us to retreat, but from a Floortime perspective, we’re not thinking about things from outside-in. We look from the inside-out aim to understand what the child is communicating. If they are ‘seeking attention’, why not give them some more? Morgan adds that seeing behaviour as ‘attention seeking’, it gives us more control so we can make a plan about how to respond.

Behavioural techniques such as ‘planned ignoring’ don’t make anyone feel good, Morgan adds. To me it’s essentially saying to a child that you see they are seeking attention but you are going to add to their frustration by not giving it to them. It seems I tend to respond with either saying, “Just a minute, angel! First I have to finish this, then I’ll be right there.” I’ll stop what I’m doing and give full attention, or I’ll be annoyed and snap back, “Shh! I’m busy!” Children will experience this range of responses and we are only human.

Ideally, at our best, we want to give our children the social experience that they can then take into the social world with their peers. Melissa pointed out that she noticed my affect change through my three examples of how I might respond to my son’s ‘attention seeking’, which is really emotion seeking. It’s important for children, she continues, to experience their parents, teachers, therapists through a range of emotions because how else do you understand what it means to be part of a relationship? People crave genuine, real emotion and connection with others.

Providing opportunities for rich, emotional connection

Morgan says that her and Melissa often wonder, “Who is this about?” If your child is trying to get your attention you can realize to yourself, “This is about me. I’m doing something that’s important to me, but I acknowledge that you are trying to communicate with me.” Melissa says the kindest thing we can do it respond in a real, genuine way, otherwise it’s a false representation of what life is really like. When she started teaching she would realize that in many cases, our instinct is to say, “No” to children, but can we switch it to, “Yes, and…” in the way I said to my son, “First I have to do this, then, yes, I’ll be right there.

Melissa adds that saying yes first changes your affect in a more pleasant way and can be a concrete way to support the child’s regulation while they wait. Who likes hearing, “No“, Melissa asks. It reminded me of the Rebecca Listener podcast about saying, Yes, and… first where Chris Hernandez interviewed a staff member who applied that principle from improv to Floortime. Toronto-based psychologist, Jennifer Kolari’s C.A.L.M. method is about connecting and co-regulation with our children. She has a great podcast as well called, Connected Parenting

She stated an alarming statistic about how parents only spend about seven minutes per week with their children in connected interactions. With us being so busy and rushing, it’s hard to make a concerted effort to have the true connections our children are craving. Often behaviour that we see could be prevented if we just took those few minutes to connect. As developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, “connect before you direct” your children so you get the eyes, the nod, and the smile. 

Jake Greenspan was really talking about having multiple Floortime sessions per day where you give your child undivided attention to connect on an emotional level in play, working our way through the developmental capacities so our children get their fill of emotional connections with us each day. These were the formal 20-minute Floortime sessions that Dr. Stanley Greenspan talked about where you set up the environment and put away all distractions and electronics.

The Range of Floortime

Melissa adds that not all 20-minute focused Floortime sessions need to look like that exerted effort at ‘the sweat levels’ (the first three Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities) where we are working so hard at connecting, engaging and keeping the child regulated. A great Floortime session could just be sitting together with a child, being together where it’s predictable because it happens regularly. This supports the child’s regulation because they expect this time with you every day. 

Floortime also looks different depending on where your child is developmentally. As my child has grown and developed, I spend less effort worrying about keeping him regulated and engaged because he is already there. Now we’re working on higher capacities so he is the one initiating and I am the one promoting his emotional and logical thinking by wondering and seeing if he can explain things to me in a logical way and exploring his emotions. Even each day things can differ depending on how our children are feeling, and on what we’re doing with them. Bath time is different than playing in another room, for instance.

Attention or Emotion Seeking is what we want

Morgan says that we want our children to seek our attention. This is a good thing. We also want them to develop their sense of agency where they realize they can create reactions in others. This is a very important developmental stage. I’ve talked about my experiences watching my son experiment with cause and effect before. 

What about kids whose attention we seek?

Other parents might wonder how to get their child’s attention rather than worrying about a child seeking too much attention. Melissa says create structure and predictable routine so the child feels safe. This alleviates pressure to show emotion and make it more likely for them to show vulnerability more spontaneously. After a few weeks, you might see your child begin to initiate interactions with you. Keep showing up for your child, Melissa advises.

As an occupational therapist, Morgan thinks of the sensory integration piece. Perhaps sensations are too much for some kids. We have to recognize the sensations our children enjoy. Think about voice: what kind of sounds and tones does the child enjoy. We heard from self-advocate, Emile Gouws about how our children can be assimilating all along and only share what’s inside of them when the environment is conducive for them to do so. 

It’s sometimes too easy as parents to give up and think, “Oh I already tried that. They don’t respond to that” when it might be on the 38th day of trying or the 12th year that you get the response! The trial and error is challenging for sure, but sticking to that cue reading and trying to figure out what our children are experiencing must be an ongoing effort. We can always guess and hope to get a response. We also will need to change as our child grows and changes too and try new ways to meet our child where they are at.

Providing the space for our children to flourish

Melissa shared a great example of a class where a child who found it very hard to engage was very interested in corn muffins, so they made corn muffins. Every child had different goals and were in different places developmentally as they made corn muffins daily for months. She discovered in this daily routine of predictability that one child loved cracking the eggs.

Another child who didn’t enjoy being part of the community suddenly spoke out one day when one of the children suggested putting Oreo cookies in the bottom of the corn muffins, saying that they do not belong there! The predictability of the community over time allowed the child feel safe to share his dissatisfaction.

It might be overwhelming for parents to think that they have to try so many things until they by chance find something that will engage their child’s interests, but just take it one day at a time and pay attention. Things will show themselves to you. It reminded me of a story which may or may not have been from Respecting Autism where a little girl discovered the piano at the Rebecca School and the world opened up to her through music.

What to try when we’re not successful at engaging our child?

During our lockdown my son has not been interested in doing math worksheets and it’s been a struggle to engage him. Then one day they used a sheet of paper with lines like a parking lot and my son got his Mario Kart Hotwheels cars and was doing every math question with excitement because he loves Mario Kart! Following the child’s interests can go a long way to help the child share fun experiences.

Melissa says we can always start with what we ourselves are passionate about. If the child gets to experience you doing something that brings you joy, your child will feel that affect of joy and pleasure. It made me think of how excited I was to get a package of chocolates from a friend, and how my son immediately wanted to be a part of it. He of course wanted some for himself, too. I was able to get some back-and-forth interactions around letting him know that we can have some after lunch.

Saving our No’s

Morgan pointed out that by saying, “Yes, and…” to my son about having chocolates after lunch, rather than saying, “No, you can’t have them now!” a very different affect is experienced. My son feels very wounded hearing, “No” so that might have dysregulated him as well. Melissa adds that it’s also very important to be reliable if you say that he can have it later then don’t follow through, it can be confusing and break trust.

Melissa continues that we also have to save our No’s for things that are really important or dangerous. If hearing, “No” dysregulates, we may have to ‘ham it up’ with our affect and say something like, “I cannot wait to have these chocolates with you. It’s going to be great after your sandwich to figure out which chocolates we’re going to have!” without even saying the world, “Wait“. We’re just trying to support the child in their regulation because sometimes it’s really hard to wait.

A Sense of Time

Morgan adds that, “wait” or “later” are abstract concepts that the child may not understand. What does “after” feel like? Time and space concepts are really developed in the sixth Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity which is a higher capacity. It takes a long time for our children to experience the difference between a few minutes versus a few hours, days, or months. This can have a lot to do with why children have meltdowns when we say, “No“. They don’t know if they’ll ever get what they want.

My son has really been working on this for months now. If I says six hours, he’ll count, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!” and I’ll say, “No, that was 6 seconds, not hours!” He’s asking me regularly when will it be May (his birthday month), or when will his package arrive (in March)? “How does it get to March?” He is working through an interoception of what time feels like. This is also part of why the pandemic has been so challenging, too, Morgan adds, because we don’t know for sure when it will end.

Morgan has come to realize the power of affect and connection where we can say that we share what they feel. We also cannot wait for this to end. Melissa adds that during the pandemic through virtual learning, we’ve been able to learn more about the parents and the families, and for which kids the virtual learning is working well because their sensory field is more controlled at home.

Allowing our children to say, “No

Morgan and Melissa also wanted to highlight the importance of giving our children the agency to say, “No“. We would rather have our children protest than have our children not let us know. Morgan offers that we want to respect our children’s thoughts and ideas. It is important for them to be able to communicate their preferences with us. Next we need to figure out why the child is saying, “No” and again, who is this for? Why do we want the answer to be “yes“?

Melissa adds that we can also work on higher capacities by having children expand on their agency. If they express something they want, we might ask them, “Give me three reasons why this should happen right now.” Morgan says for younger kids we can have a silly, shared experience around saying, “No” where we use a lot of affect and express surprise with, “No? You said no?

What about when we need our kids to do something they say “No” to?

Sometimes, though, I can hear parents listening say, “But I need my child to do something!” like having a bath, for instance! Melissa said there are not across-the-board answers as everything is situational but it involves compromise and connecting about the real reasons for the, “No“. It might be a sensory piece, or a certain time of day. Trying to understand sends the message that you are trying. It takes time and repetition

Morgan adds that it becomes a shared experience about, “How can we make this better for you?” It gives them a sense of agency. “Hmm, I wonder if it’s because the water gets in your eyes, or you get cold when you get out of the tub?” Melissa also thinks about how are we setting them up for success for bath time, or are we rushing through? It’s also important for us to stay regulated as caregivers during these times.

I added that we can also involve the child in scheduling activities where there is flexibility. This is the start of self-advocacy, Morgan offers. We can have the child choose which time of day they want their bath and put it on a calendar. They might still protest, but then we can say, “Oh! But this is what you chose! Hmm… What should we do?” I added that this is important for Moms like me who do everything to make things easy for our kids because not everyone else will be able to read our children’s minds like we can and they will have to learn to communicate their wants and needs.

Helping our children self-advocate

When our children say no, we can wonder why and it’s important to wonder and let them see we want to understand. Putting them on the spot asking them why might provoke anxiety but Melissa also points out that they might not be able to answer or might not be aware of why themselves. It’s mostly to put the intention out that you want to understand. We can also wonder why they’re so happy about something. Giving them practice around things that are easier can prepare them for communicating preferences.

Morgan suggests that we can also then work on the higher capacities of degrees of liking something such as why my son might like Koopa Troopa the best out of all the many good and bad guy turtles in Mario Kart and who he likes next best, and the next one he likes a little less than that one. This can lead to thinking about how angry you are today versus how angry you were yesterday. Dr. Davis had also suggested I work on this with my son! So I am excited I have many take-aways from today to put into practice. 

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful conversation and suggestions from Melissa and Morgan in this week’s podcast and a big thank you to them for taking the time for our learning. If you enjoyed it please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant comments, questions, or experiences in the Comments section below!

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

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