Your Growth is your Child's Growth: Strength in Relationships

by Affect Autism

This Week’s Guest

Julia Swaigen is a registered social worker in Toronto, Ontario, Canada who founded and directs Attuned Families, a clinic to help families harness the power of relationships so that parents find peace and children thrive. They offer Family Therapy, Child Therapy, Parent Coaching, and the Safe and Sound Protocol based on the Polyvagal Theory of Dr. Stephen Porges. Julia is here today to discuss the work they do with a DIR/Floortime lens.

Julia and I have both taken many courses from the Neufeld Institute and were introduced by our local Neufeld facilitator. Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist who was also a clinical psychologist for over 40 years and he has a wonderful model of attachment, which is so much more than attachment. It is all about relationships as well. Julia discovered Dr. Neufeld’s work when her first child was born and she was overwhelmed with her parenting experience and found it very helpful, allowing her to tune back in to her parenting instincts.

Bonus Insights

Filling a Void for Families

Julia had families approaching her at the clinic whose children were on the autism spectrum and she was hesitant about taking them on as clients because she wasn’t an expert about autism. The families insisted on working with her because the behavioural approaches didn’t align with their family values and went against their instincts. She was very moved by what they had been through and amazed by what they could do together working through a different lens. She was also shocked at how difficult it was to find someone to work with them in this lens.

Julia put a call out for therapists who were interested in the developmental approach and in her search for similar models, she found DIR/Floortime. Julia’s staff is currently being trained in DIR/Floortime at the International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL). Neufeld’s approach and DIR/Floortime really complement each other in being relationship-based and developmental.

We talked about how the behavioural approach is a tough system to shift. Unless you live through it yourself and understand it, it’s hard to understand the experience of a behavioural approach, where there’s no understanding of the Individual differences of children, the sensory experiences, the fight or flight that children feel or why they are behaving the way they do when they melt down. When people aren’t informed about attachment and how relationships form, it’s hard to see until you look through a different lens, Dr. Neufeld says. It’s tough to advocate for children, Julia shares, but it’s really important.

Julia’s Approach

I asked Julia how she approaches her clients when they come in and present their concerns around behavioural issues at Attuned Families. Julia said they have 7 therapists who are all very client-centred and use approaches that are relationship-focused and support family relationships. There are so many places where they can start and it depends on their initial experience with the family. They aim to partner with the family and support them on their journey.

They can start with what feels the most easy for the family, or what is the most urgent. They can see momentum quite quickly. Their focus is building the trust with the family and getting to know them. There might be behavioural concerns, they might be struggling with communication with the school, or not having enough support being spread out thin and feeling overwhelmed.

A relationship-based approach snowballs and you get back from it what you put into it.

Julia Swaigen, DIR Social Worker

Setting Families up for Success

Julia’s team will draw on the parents’ personal resources to shift behaviour. Sometimes they first look at supporting the parent and building them up before they can then support the child. They look at getting to a starting point and build on the momentum. Families feel relief and validation because there is so much pressure to conform and ‘control’ their child’s behaviour.

A Developmental vs. Behavioural Approach

Julia feels that a developmental, relationship-based approach is actually easier than a behavioural approach, as much as the latter can seem more simple and straightforward.

Instead the relationship-based approach validates parents that they are doing their best. Julia says there is often a release with a lot of tears when she can give that good feedback to a parent that they deserve to hear. She also never stops being surprised by how poorly parents get treated in the system. Neurodiverse or not, or neurodivergent or not, as a culture, and with our systems, we don’t have developmentally appropriate expectations for typically developing children, so that’s also a place where I start with families who aren’t struggling with any diagnoses.


The school system, as a culture and a society, we aren’t setting up families for success in building healthy attachment relationships. We’re putting a lot of barriers and expectations in the way that are really unhelpful on caregivers, families, and children. We download grown-up problems on our children. No wonder they’re anxious and struggling.


Support Systems

Julia also enjoys bringing caregivers together to get support from each other to see that they aren’t the only ones who are in touch with their instincts and who are trying to do better than what the system is offering for their kids. I think this is what brings so many people to Floortime. Something did not feel right about ABA. Trusting your instinct and trusting your gut about what feels good for your child and what feels safe.

Julia’s clinic runs a parenting group called the Attuned Village where they have digital content and get together virtually every other week during the lunch hour. It’s a place for parents to support one another. It’s a real place of growth. There is curriculum parents have access to, but it’s about talking about what’s happening right now and discussing that and supporting each other. They also do workshops in person and have an event coming up on June 8th

Our kids need us to listen to our instincts and to have that confidence and be their advocates.

Julia Swaigen, DIR Social Worker

Attuned Parenting Seminar on June 8, 2022

The Attuned Parenting Seminar in Prince Edward County, Ontario, will be a day-long event in a beautiful venue where parents can feel looked after for a day. Parents are doing hard work daily that is unappreciated. This seminar will give them a protected space to gain some clarity and consciousness around their parenting. There will be a curriculum in the morning around barriers to putting this approach into practice, a lunch, and break-out groups in the afternoon where people can share their stories, connect, and troubleshoot. There is also a virtual option as well for those who can’t travel. It is eligible for the Ontario Autism Program funding and workplace benefits for social workers.

Commonalities of Developmental Approaches

I asked Julia how she sees Dr. Neufeld’s work meshing with DIR/Floortime and how she applies Floortime in her practice. She said she’s not always totally conscious about where what she’s doing has come from. Dr. Neufeld’s work is very transformational and she loves the way that Floortime provides for dyadic work between parent and child, giving us a way to work with children that uses less ‘talk therapy’. It’s about deeply reading children, attunement, that builds wonderfully on Dr. Neufeld’s work.

Every parent is on a journey and everyone is in a different place in their journey. Each has different assumptions and expectations around their children’s behaviour, and differing capacities of attuning to their children. If you’re finding it really hard to empathize with your child’s emotional experience, it’s tough doing Floortime. The approaches she learns that align with what they do at the practice get integrated in what they do, such as Emotion-Focused Therapy that is about skill building for parents. It’s a way to undo emotional blocks that cause parents to pull back in emotional interactions with their children. It helps them clear the block, which then helps them apply the Floortime approach. 

Snowballing the Experience

There’s a huge narrative out there that is parent-blaming, Julia explains. They try to break down the blame and the shame and provide support. The whole experiential piece is what helps parents get comfortable with this approach. The village exists because you can learn this stuff, Julia says. You need practice and reinforcement to get your mind back to where you want it. It’s not easy to make changes. You have to know that you are your child’s best bet with confidence, as Dr. Neufeld says.

Support offers the non-judgmental encouragement that helps parents, who inevitably mess up. It’s about showing up and having that consciousness to make the changes. Sometimes parents also have a lot of fear, Julia says, because if they have a behaviourist approach in place, they worry what will happen when they take that away, so Julia says they only add, rather than take anything away to start.

When children feel supported, things can improve instantly.

Julia Swaigen, DIR Social Worker

Aim to Thrive

Mental health is also an issue so we must acknowledge that we struggle and try to do better. We all need support to succeed. Dr. Neufeld prefers the term ’emotional well-being’ to ‘mental health’ because mental health implies a disorder. We all need emotional health. We all get dysregulated regularly. Dr. Neufeld is now thinking of play as the ’emotional playground’ because much of what we label ‘play’ is not true play. Play is about experimenting with our emotions. How can we use this emotional playground to support each other? At Attuned Families, they focus on prevention, early intervention and innovation around family mental health. We want more than the ‘lack of a disorder’. We want to thrive.

Own your role, follow your gut, and find people to support you–both formally and informally–whom you genuinely feel supported by.

Julia Swaigen, DIR Social Worker

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s take note of what supports we have in place for ourselves.

For example: Do you have formal supports in place such as a therapist or a professional you check in with regularly or a support group you attend? Do you have informal supports in place such as other parents in similar situations as you or understanding friends with whom you can Zoom or have coffee with, or even regular phone calls? Do you have support from family members whom you feel safe with? If not, can you think of someone to reach out to and ask for support or just call them to talk?

Thank you to Julia for sharing her work with us and what DIR/Floortime means to her and how she uses it to support the families she works with. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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