Returning guest, Licensed Professional Counsellor and DIR Expert Training Leader, Mike Fields from Floortime Atlanta and Inneractions Therapy Services, joins us this week to discuss how we want to be creating opportunities for our children in Floortime rather than stealing opportunities from them. But first, we talk about his love of Gaming and how he’s on his way to a llama farm! Mike spoke of his love of adventure camps in our first podcast together about Growth and Gaming and his connection with Jack Berkenstock and the Bodhana Group and using games like Dungeons & Dragons therapeutically where you can create your own story and be defined by your assets and affinities, rather than by your deficits.

Creating opportunities in Floortime

by Affect Autism

Process over Product

Mike starts with an example of being at his adventure camps and hearing the director, Matt, yell out “Thief!” This happens when a child with motor planning challenges, for instance, is struggling with an activity. They think it’s too difficult and don’t want to try because they don’t think they can do it. So Mike will start doing something that’s fun and Floortime-y using their intrinsic motivations and things they like to get them to do something that’s just like the thing they thought they couldn’t do. Here, Mike could say, “Hey! This is just like the other thing that you thought was too difficult for you, and you did it!

While Mike says there is some value in that, how much more impactful and meaningful is it if the kids make that connection themselves? Don’t take that opportunity for them to connect something themselves. If you have in your head that this is only a week-long camp, how much impact can I have and I need to make sure they learn this, then you’re thinking of product over process. Similarly with parents who say their child’s behaviour is frustrating when they are trying to get them to the car from playing, Mike can say, “Oh, so you’re having a parallel process to what your child is experiencing?” But if he can sit back and be patient and ask how it felt for them in that moment, they might come to that realization themselves.

But if Mike can sit back and be patient and ask how it felt for them in that moment, they might come to that realization themselves. Now they have an emotional connection that has that extra affect with it so the idea and memory is richer and more meaningful, Mike explains. It goes against what we learn as parents who are told to praise our children for the good things they do. Praise is a behavioural technique based on reward and punishment. When you tell them what they did, it changes the dynamic to them doing something to please you rather than from their own intrinsic motivation–along with robbing them of the opportunity to make that realization themselves.

Mike agrees and mentioned the book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, who is the keynote speaker at this year’s DIR/Floortime conference in November. If you reward for everything, then the child won’t be motivated to do things without a reward. Mili Cordero gave an example in the Floortime Lifestyle podcast of how she put up a board for chores where her children signed up each week and never received more than a ‘thank you’ to get away from that kind of practice. I also mentioned how I am practicing myself not to be the ‘thief’ in ICDL’s weekly virtual parent support meeting where my tendency is to share every resource I have and impart my ‘wisdom’ on parents rather than guide them to that realization.

The Importance of Affect

Mike also brought up ABC in psychology (Affect-Behaviour-Cognition) where if you can affect one of the three components, you can affect all of them. The ‘A’ is for ‘affect’. We know from brain imaging research and the Polyvagal Theory, Mike says, that as we take in sensory information, it goes through our limbic system–our emotions. We use affect to connect wants and desires to action. It’s most important. Mike says the ‘B’ is why kids have meltdowns if you focus on behaviour. You have to be able to regulate yourself before you can be connected. If you focus on behaviour without the affect, Mike says, you’ll run into some bumps.

The ‘C’ is for cognition and we know from the DIR Model that this is the higher functional emotional developmental capacities that come after regulation, engagement, back-and-forth communication, and social problem solving. Mike makes the point that he can cognitively study how to play the ukulele and learn the tabs to read music but he wouldn’t be able to pick it up and play it without the experience of playing it, which adds the affect to it. That is what you need to learn. The more affect you can bring in, the less mechanical it can be as he can move from mechanically playing into art and creativity. Similarly, when a child figure out how to do something, they have that experience in their body which is so different.

Radical Acceptance

Mike refers to Dr. Greenspan and Dr. Tippy‘s book, Respecting Autism, which is a case study of students at the Rebecca School. Mike says that the reason he keeps going back to the DIR Model is the idea of radical acceptance, which is not wanting to change somebody. We don’t want kids nor parents to struggle but we often jump to ‘fix’ things. There are some problems we can’t fix, so the ‘product’ isn’t even an option. All we have is process, Mike states. So how do we support that process? We are human beings, not human doings, but the focus in our culture is on what we do.

DIR/Floortime has Development: the FEDCs, and the Individual differences. What level can someone process something on? When you can’t negotiate social problem solving, you don’t have any other ideas. Mike gave an example of a boy who was aggressive with another boy. When they split them apart, the boy said, “I don’t know how to get the car back from him.” The focus on the product-based approach is how to get the car back. The process-based approach is, “That is a really uncomfortable feeling. What do we do when we feel that?

DIR is a framework for understanding all relationships and all communication.

Mike Fields

How to Stay In the Process

Being uncomfortable isn’t fun. Mike says that he didn’t pass his DIR 202 certificate the first time because he wasn’t very reflective. After working with a coach to process this, he didn’t like it. Being reflective is not fun because what comes up is mistakes, fear, and doubt. We want to think about it, though, Mike stresses, so that the next time you feel that way, you can stop and make a choice. It’s easy to hang out with happy feelings all day, he says, but when we’re sad or angry, we need something else to do. 

Mike gave an example of apologizing to his wife for being short and angry lately and his son asked why. He replied that things haven’t been going his way lately. His son asked him, “Why don’t you just not be angry?” Mike says we want to be able to feel and accept our negative emotions and then choose how to respond. Mike says that in training courses, his students often try hard to challenge children in Floortime, and while challenge is important for growth, the priority is the foundation of regulation. The world will always give you a lot of opportunities for challenge so we don’t need to create new problems, Mike laughs.

Mike says that the way to stay in the process is to be in the moment, connect, and attune to them. Let the individual know that you are on their side. We’re not the opponent, Mike says. We’re not trying to create obstacles for anyone. We want to support them and help them be the best that they can be. They get to decide whom they want to be. This process can be so different based on the relationship, Mike reminds us. It can’t just be us picking the answer and showing it to them. We have to be there for them and help them find their answer. 

This is the art of Floortime, Mike says. What developmental capacity are you at? The FEDCs are places on the map where you want to go. The individual differences are like the legend. These tell us what to watch for and be careful about, or areas that are really cool and things to see. For example, we have to make sure the individual get lots of proprioception. The relationship is the vehicle we drive in and affect is the gas, Mike explains. The art is, “What does this look like for you?” and how each person does that will be different. 

Reflection is Essential

Occupational therapist, Keith Landherr, talked about how he’ll see parents stealing opportunities where he’ll be working with a child on the swing doing certain novel movements and the parent will point out what he’s doing when Keith really was hoping the kid would realize it on their own. But while hoping the individuals we play with have that opportunity for realization, it’s important that reflection be a big part of our Floortime process as providers and parents as well because when we get scared, we can stop and think about our choices about what to do next, then choose without that fear, and model this for those we play with. 

Mike says that his own coach tells him that you can walk by dog poop on the sidewalk, but you don’t have to step in it or pick it up and carry it around with you all day. That is a choice. But how do you put it down and not carry it? That’s the art. And it’s not only figuring out where someone is developmentally, I added, but where they developmentally are in that moment. Floortime is such a dynamic process. Mike says to take this experience and go play and have fun with someone. Relate and communicate. The more you understand yourself, the easier it is to empathize and accept somebody else. I concluded by adding that many parents are hesitant to do it, but video taping your interactions with your child allows you to reflect and grow as a Floortimer.

This week's PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s take Mike’s suggestion and reflect on a time where we feel frustration with our child. Reflect how you felt in that moment and what was it like for you. Notice each time you get frustrated. This is the first step in being able to stop and choose how we respond next time.

For example: My son asks a TON of questions over and over again–the same ones. My process is that I would be puzzled. I would respond that he already asked me that. It can feel frustrating to respond each time over and over again. Then I changed my response to asking him what he thought my answer was. He would respond and smile. I noticed that instead of feeling frustrated, it brought a sense of shared joy when he smiled, knowing my response. Now I happily respond, even when it feels tedious because I see that it calms him to go through that repetition and I chose not to let myself get annoyed by it to the best of my ability in whatever state I might be in at that time.

Thank you to Mike Fields for spending time with us and sharing his insights that are always so helpful for parents and practitioners alike. If you enjoyed and found it useful and helpful, please do share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. Also stay tuned for next week’s podcast where Mike’s colleague, psychologist Kathy Platzman joins us to discuss parents of neurodivergent children wondering if they are neurodivergent themselves.

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

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