Curiosity as a Driver of Connection and Interaction in Adolescence

by Affect Autism

This Week’s Topic

In our last podcast together, back in 2019, Dave Nelson and I discussed puberty and how we can best support our kids in a respectful way using a developmental approach. Today we want to continue on that topic by touching on the developmental way to support our adolescents in taboo areas.

This Week’s Guest

Dave Nelson is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a DIR Expert Training Leader, and the Executive Administrative Director of the Threshold Community Program in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bonus Insights

There are no definitive answers

In our last podcast, Dave said that the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model and Floortime give us a way to think about and approach issues because we’re not going to have the answer to every problem that comes up, nor will we necessarily be able to plan in advance and that this helps us start to think about issues in an anticipatory way rather than being reactive.

Dave says that this is a challenge of being a parent of any kind. You have to anticipate and guess, but you just don’t know what things are going to be like. Supporting the emerging sexuality and sexual identity of a child is challenging, regardless of a child’s profile. It’s about supporting the individual, Dave says, into a functional, happy, safe adulthood. There really are no definitive answers for this stuff, he reiterates.

Perceptions of Others

Since Covid, my son has grown to almost my height and is now 13 and a half, but developmentally he is not where a typical 13-year-old would be and academically he is at about a Kindergarten or grade 1 level, in the early stages of reading and writing. When people see him, they might expect him to be like a neurotypical 13-year-old, but notice he talks loudly and a lot, and might talk nonstop whether someone is listening or not. 

This might cue them that he might be neurodivergent. I asked Dave about this and about the cap that gets put on our kids resulting in them being put in a ‘life skills’ program/path versus moving them along the developmentally, including academically. He might be considered to have an intellectual disability–it could be delayed, and he might have an intellectual disability still in 10 years–we don’t know–but in DIR, we always want to assume that the potential is there. 

Dave gave an example about a very tall girl on a teen volleyball team who was only 8 years old. Everybody who saw her would assume she had a certain level of maturity and capability so when she got upset and cried people looked at her judgmentally, not knowing that she was only 8 years old. It’s hard for us as humans to resist the temptation to make conclusions about somebody based on how they look, Dave offers.

DIR encourages us to look at people based on their Individual profile. DIR practitioners are going to be more comfortable supporting an adult who still likes kids’ shows. Meeting someone where they are means meeting someone where they are cognitively and emotionally. ‘Presume competence‘ has become a buzz phrase in different years. The underlying idea is valid in that we don’t want to put a cap on what somebody is capable of. While this is essential, it also creates a bit of a challenge. How do you meet them where they are based on what they’re presenting to us and how do you not overshoot, Dave asks.

Meeting someone where they are at

One of DIR‘s early lessons for Dave with his own son was not to overshoot just because a person can talk and talk at great length about dinosaurs or trees, for instance. They might not have the same emotional and cognitive development of someone else their age, Dave explains. Yes, leave the door open to the top for independence or going to college, but also meet them where they are without filling them with our own hopeful expectations. It’s an important part to meet someone where they are. If they are showing us a certain set of ideas or interests, we have to accept that.

It’s about understanding that continuing to do the Floortime, meeting them where they’re at, and gently challenging and expanding over time as they move up developmentally. That trajectory is unknown, but in the moment you have to meet them where they’re at and use the ‘just-right challenge’

Safety comes first

Dave says to bring it back to supporting budding sexuality, we have to be concerned with safety first and foremost. The term ‘presume competence‘ is frequently used with the community of those who use an AAC Device because they don’t use spoken language. Dave’s concern is that we still need to lean heavily towards safety and protection for those who aren’t able to easily advocate for themselves. 

We need to support them to make sure that they know what it is that they think and feel and to help them have ways of navigating the world safely. Not everybody is in a position to know that and be able to reflect on that. We all want everyone to have as much autonomy as they can, but we all know stories where people have gotten themselves into difficult situations because they haven’t acted on that autonomy in a safe way. When you’re talking about supporting someone into puberty and adulthood, we can’t forget those basic protections.

What do you do when kids say inappropriate things?

A parent recently brought this concern to me: “As my son’s social development has blossomed, he picks up on phrases and words that make other people laugh or blush. And then HOLY MOLY… there’s no stopping him based on context! Part of that is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because we haven’t had ‘The Talk’. Part of that is his desire to fit in and belong and not having a social filter. So educating him on the information BUT trying to support him on when and where this is discussed is really beyond me.

Dave gave an example of a 15-year-old in his community school who started taking pictures of women’s butts at school. Dave said that it was safe in the sense that the teachers understand our kids, but of course they still don’t want their photos being taken–especially when they’re inappropriate. I said how this, in an innocent way, is just his curiosity, but as an adolescent it’s completely inappropriate, so what do we do? 

Dave says that this is the tight rope we have to walk because we absolutely want to be validating their curiosity about sex and sexuality and their desire to be socially connected, so we don’t want to shut down attempts to make social connections. At the same time, however, we have to figure out how to articulate and set limits on behaviour and communication–and this is difficult for DIR practitioners.

We can’t endorse or endure every kind of behaviour. It gets really hard to navigate both of those ideas, Dave says. Dr. Greenspan was masterful at this idea of not being offended or put off or stopping it, but use it as a driver of connection and interaction, Dave continues. So much of the focus in Dave’s training was on early intervention with young children, so it’s tricky as kids age. We still, though, have to validate the curiosity and attempts to communicate and to express those limits on that communication.

How to set the boundary

We have to come up with ways, using affect and our words, to say that you’ve entered a difficult area here and it’s not working, all while validating their curiosity and attempts to connect. For parents who find setting that limit difficult, Dave suggests replace whatever that thing they’re doing is with some explicit kind of hate speech. You’d be much more comfortable stopping that. If they ran out onto a busy highway, you’d have no problem physically stopping them.

How you limit set will differ based on the person you’re supporting in terms of how complicated the language they can understand is, or how much behavioural control they have. You want to start using affective or other signals that convey that they’ve entered a ‘red zone’ or that they’ve entered ‘a private conversation only’ and then come up with ways to support that conversation, Dave advises.

Reflecting on his own experience learning how to follow somebody’s lead, Dave says you need to be non-judgmental nor overly reactive to unusual or provocative things. This is a bit of an adjustment because you’re saying, “Hold on! You’ve crossed a line.” If we’re trying to help people be a safe, productive, happy member of a society then we have to help them learn some of these things. How we do it depends on their ‘D’ and their ‘I’, Dave explains.

Part of what you want to do, Dave explains, is to start to define some of these difficult areas with your child. You have to come up with that language yourself. Whether it’s “this is private talk” or “sex talk“, we have to have some limits over where and when we can do these things. Over time, it will be easier to help somebody be aware of what’s happening and stop them, but when you’re talking about someone who finds it difficult co-regulating with others and gets upregulated as they have these ideas, and says these things to get a reaction, it sometimes means you are going to have to separate people and co-regulate them in those Floortime ways.

By the time a child hits adolescence, parents want to be out of the playroom and want to have dinners with family members on holidays. Calm them down, re-engage them and work them back up developmentally. Separating, calming and re-regulating gets difficult as our kids get older, but we don’t want to punish or chastise them for being in these taboo areas. We want to re-engage in ways that work for them so you can then talk to them more reflectively about those ideas.

Play is the best, most effective place for us to help people experiment with difficult or complicated feelings, whether it’s aggression or sexuality or something else provocative.

Dave Nelson, Licensed Professional Counselor

Bring it into play

Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks a lot about how important play is to channel frustration. He suggests putting on a ‘play’ hat, so to speak, whether it’s a different playful voice or change in affect, so you can work it out through play which is a defined, pretend space with no consequences that allows you to work through the emotions. Dave loves that. Putting it in a context of play does put a bubble around it, but also, within that bubble, gives you more freedom to act, react, and respond in a supportive, collaborating way, Dave explains.

If someone is obsessed with butts, you can explore that in the play bubble: “What do you find so interesting about butts? If you could take pictures of anybody, who would you take pictures of?” But by being very explicit about the play bubble, you can then limit it effectively when you’re not in the play bubble. That would be a place where it comes easy to talk about play or explore these things.

Being somebody with either a lot of sticky thoughts, or someone who doesn’t communicate their ideas easily, must feel like they’re getting corrected and chastised a lot, Dave says, so we want to give them a lot of opportunity to expand on their ideas so they can come more reciprocal and more connected to the ideas of other people around them, and at the same time learn to manage those impulses when they’re not in those safe spaces.

We don’t want to censor ‘play’

In my Basic Certificate DIR/Floortime course, one of the case presentations was about a child who was playing jail with the therapist and said, “I’m going to arrest you!” and Occupational Therapist, Maude Le Roux, said it’s so important to let the child enact what they’re imagining in play so it gets resolved. Allowing kids to play it out helps them to process it and understand why it wouldn’t work in the real world. Dave says that in general, for somebody who tends towards rigid thinking or black and white thinking, or who hasn’t reached multi-causal thinking yet, that process of play isn’t just a one-time thing.

They may need to play it out 1,000 times. You can then offer them 100,000 different responses to that so they can build a conceptual understanding versus a rigid, “I can’t talk about that” understanding, Dave explains. We think that someone we’re interacting with has a nuanced understanding about something then you realize that they think that if they do this thing or that, they’ll go to jail. The recurrence and repetitiveness of play is an important part of helping someone develop shades of gray, multi-causal thinking, and these higher capacities.

I wanted to make the distinction between playfully playing with ideas versus entertaining ideas of what could become criminal activities. A parent shared at ICDL’s parent support meeting that their young son is sniffing his older sister’s butt and giggling, but the sister doesn’t like that. It’s silly but at the same time, they want to affirm to the sister that it’s not ok to let boys sniff her butt. Dave says that this is a great example because yes, other people are affected by this as well. 

Even if you have some idea of the best way to support the child who’s sniffing butts is to be playful, you can’t ignore the fact that somebody else is being subjected to something they don’t consent to. We need to support that. 

Whatever limit-setting you do, you have to realize that it’s not the primary way they’re going to learn something. The way they’re going to learn something is by that active, engaged, reciprocal, play-based, or a conversational back-and-forth.

Dave Nelson, Licensed Professional Counselor

It’s how we gradually develop the nuance and sophistication of perspective and points of view. So the limit-setting is important in keeping people safe and communicating to that sibling that their bodily integrity is matters, but it’s not going to teach that child self control. That comes in a different context. It’s hard at every age, and maybe gets harder in adolescence when you can get arrested or get in trouble.

Positively engage while setting limits

It’s one thing to understand that you have to set a limit, but what happens when you’re not there to set the limit, I point out to Dave. That’s ultimately what you’re working towards, Dave assures me. Having worked with so many adolescents and adults, he says that what we’re working towards is for people to be safe and functional individuals in the world to make decisions, even if they can’t be fully independent. You have to be playing the long game from the beginning, he insists.

Even if you set a rule that “we’re not going to sniff butts in this house“, it’s not necessarily addressing the underlying developmental issue that we will need to have a better decision-making going forward. That’s where the curiosity and judgment comes in. Is this a sensory stimulation thing? Don’t most people think that farting is hysterical? There’s lots of contexts where that’s perfectly acceptable and normal, Dave asserts–maybe without quite the filter that we would expect or the self-restraint. It’s not like we’re going to purge these ideas or thoughts from the person, so we might as well embrace it or figure out how to use it in a safe and functional way.

Maybe it is exploring different kinds of smells or doing pretend play around farting or butts or poop, Dave suggests. That, then, may also come along with specific limit-setting about what you can and cannot do with other people, but you have to stay curious about what’s driving those behaviours, Dave explains.

What do we do when kids catastrophize?

My son gets stuck in a ‘negative brain’“, a parent recently shared. “Everything is bad, awful, and scary. His amygdala flips out on what-if questions and we do a lot of work to not deny those things but to bring him back down to that’s not happening right now. So, part of educating him is also educating him on safety and boundaries BUT not flip his brain into all the bad things that can happen. Not just to him… but to understand how he needs to respect others and not violate their boundaries.” I asked Dave for his thoughts.

Dave says it’s a great follow-up question to everything we’ve been talking about because when we’re talking about separating someone to calm them down–co-regulating and re-engaging with them–a challenge is that we may have a child who is just very hair-trigger reactive, overstimulated easily, an anxious type, and/or quick to get into this global negative thinking. Whether you’re on the spectrum or not, it’s challenging and affects your behaviour, the decisions you make, the things you watch, and careers and friends that you choose, Dave explains, because if you’re spending a lot of your energy avoiding being in fight or flight and worse-case scenarios, then it’s going to be hard to take the emotional risks that we need to connect with others and learn and grow.

Going back to the DIR concept, it’s not just about the profile of the child, but also of the profile of the caregiver and how it matches up. If you’re a very sensitive, reactive, control-oriented parent and you have a very sensitive, reactive, control-oriented child, it’s going to be harder for you to work that out, Dave suggests. Ultimately, he says, what you want to do–how ever narrow it may be–is find that band where your child is a little dysregulated, a little anxious, and/or a little concerned, but still able to open and close circles, and to maybe laugh or be challenged in the context of play or in Floortime.

Otherwise, Dave continues, once they get in to that rigid, catastrophic thinking, you’re not going to be able to use logic or information to help them, in most cases. You’ll have to go back to Capacities 1, 2, and 3: calming, soothing, re-regulating, re-engaging, interacting and working back up to that cognitive level. That’s where medication, or Occupational Therapy, or however you construct your environment, can give people as much latitude as you can without getting people into a flight or flight, catastrophic reaction.

Collaborate with the person you’re trying to support

Dave gives the example of being afraid of dogs. You can’t just throw someone in with dogs. It will take many positive, supported experiences with dogs, talking cognitively about dogs, and more. There’s not one thing that will fix it and it’s not always totally fixable, but with gentle, nurturing support you can integrate that part of yourself into your life so you can function. So if you’re someone who’s quick to get anxious–whether it’s time-anxious, or social anxiety, you’ll have to do a lot more anticipating and preparing and approaching things gently, and not staying in them too long, then processing and reflecting on the positive experiences.

A lot of our kids really do get stuck. Individual profiles who don’t shift gears easily take recognition of the people around that person that there’s going to be individualized things that work when that person gets stuck. As much as possible, you want to collaborate with the person you’re trying to support. You can say to them that there might be times where you harp on something and I’ll just say, “Snap out of it!“–not to be judgmental, but just to help you, so it can become a collaborative self-aware experience over time.

You won’t do this with a 3-year-old, but more with a 7-, 10-, or 13-year-old. Slowly bring them in to the process of what you’re going to do to help them. Over time that will help them get better at saying, “Actually that’s not helpful. Let’s figure out a better way.” You want the person you’re supporting to gradually become more self-determining so that means working with them, and getting them more engaged in helping you support them.

Being the Parent

I mentioned to Dave that I am still clipping my son’s toenails while he sleeps because trying to do it while he’s awake drives him straight into fight or flight. I had met an acquaintance’s 25-year-old autistic son a few years ago and asked him about the experience of getting his nails clipped. He described to me how aversive it was to him and that helped me have empathy for what my son experiences in those moments of attempted foot grooming.

Re-iterating both for yourself, I’m the mom here, I have certain responsibilities, I’m not doing this to make your life miserable. This is something that has to be done. There’s a cognitive override that says you need to do this and it’s ok. Having a clear sense of I’m a mother and this is my job, it makes it easier. Other times, you can say, Ok I think this is my job, but is it really important. Sometimes the answer will be yes and sometimes will be no.

For all parents and all parenting, Dave says, but especially for our kids, you have got to be consulting with other people and have a support network of other outside people who you can talk this stuff through to get some outside grounding. The more you’re in the bubbles with your child, it’s hard to know if you’re doing the right thing, Dave suggests. Dave gave an example of a young man he knows who leaves his nails about half an inch long and is now in college. 

There are social implications to not cutting nails, but it’s a gradual education and a self-awareness project, being attuned to how others will react to that. This young man’s parents have said, “This is your decision.” It wasn’t worth going to war over. These are the complicated, individualized decisions that we always have to make, Dave continues. Is this the place where I’m drawing the line? When will you fight a battle and when will you let something go? The larger goal is the autonomy, safety and purposefulness of an adult.

Dave says that you have to keep returning of the guiding principles of what you’re trying to doing in supporting your child in becoming an adult and deciding what’s important because you believe it’s important or figuring out if it’s only important because of an external cause or reason.

Symbolic thinking

I asked Dave about symbolic thinking and abstract concepts such as ‘love’ or ‘relationships’. Dave says that he likes to use language. It’s comfortable for him to speak in complex language. But whether you’re interacting with young children or individuals with developmental challenges, you can’t speak from your comfort zone. You have to meet them where they are developmentally. When you’re talking about issues of behavioural control, and particularly sexually, if someone doesn’t have symbolic thinking, you’ll have to create behavioural control and set physical or other limits to keep people from doing things they shouldn’t be doing and you can’t always explain why, Dave explains. 

This brings us back to play and why it’s so important. When you see something in a visual domain and represent ideas with other things, it will help you develop the language ability to do that. How do you communicate with people without using a lot of language? Visual pictures or picture or simple books are great and are important to take advantage of, but it doesn’t mean that the symbolic understanding is there, necessarily.

Aconcept like love is very abstract, but Dave says let’s consider how Dr. Greenspan would use the example of how we learn what an apple is. It’s not just a red ball. It’s invested with emotional meaning such as how it tasted when you bit into it or what it felt like when you threw it at your brother. Love is a million different things, Dave says. You want to start putting things in the category of ‘love’. Baking cookies for somebody is an act of love, he says. Putting somebody to bed is an act of love, Dave says.

Dave says we can help somebody to have experiences and then gradually categorize those experiences. Dave made a timeline like a calendar and he’d talk with a client about things that happened each week. Gradually through play and interaction and the support of the visual timeline, they’d put a stick figure picture on each event on the timeline ,and over time they would categorize these things so you could point to all of the things that were fun, that were not fun, etc. It helps someone think of more things, more conceptually. You can begin to build the conceptual out of the specific.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s see if we can engage in our children’s curiosities, even if they say something ‘taboo’.

For example: When your child says something you don’t want them saying in public, label that as a ‘home only’ or ‘private topic’ (or the word of your choice) and engage them with curiosity, wondering what it is they like about that word, that object, or that idea. See if you can interact and ‘play’ with the idea for a number of circles of interactions.

Thank you to Dave Nelson for discussing these difficult topics that come up with puberty in our children, through a DIR/Floortime lens. 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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