Interactive Play with People: DIR - Floortime - PLAY

Building relationships through emotional attunement and playful interaction by following the child’s natural emotional interests (= his lead) and challenging him at the same time to help him climb the developmental ladder

  1. Do you worry because your child is still not talking and difficult to engage?
  2. Do you wish someone would show you how to have fun and engage with your child, rather than focus on getting a diagnosis?
  3. Are you looking for developmental play-based alternatives to ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis)?

The DIR or Floortime approach provides you with a developmental map and a clear direction, when you feel lost about your child’s puzzling behaviour or uneven development.

DIR Floortime is focused on building relationships through emotional attunement and playful interaction.

What is DIRFloortime?

DIRFloortime is a developmental child-centred and play-based approach to helping children with developmental delays and/or autism to climb the developmental ladder. It is an inside-out approach that focusses on helping the child to grow as a whole person, and to use his/her strengths to manage his/her own challenges. Its focus is on intrinsic motivation and having fun together as the basic building blocks of all learning, as well as for language development.

By following the child’s natural emotional interests (lead), while challenging him at the same time through emotional attunement, playful interaction and ‘circles of communication’ we guide the child towards building relationships and increasing mastery of his social, emotional and intellectual capacities.

Developmental Individualised Relationship-based vs. Behavioural Approaches (like ABA)

DIR-approaches are unlike traditional behavioural approaches (like ABA) that focus on behaviour modification and training children to perform certain activities as decided by the adult and without focus on what is going on emotionally inside. Instead, the versatile holistic and reflective DIR approach, first described by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and his wife Nancy, and his colleague Serena Wieder, pays attention to the child’s individual interests, processing abilities and relationships, as well as to our own personalities and reactions to the child, and also to family patterns.

This positive, dynamic and playful approach redefines autism as a developmental disorder with great potential for growth and change. It makes sense of its puzzling symptoms with the DIR-model of universal mental-emotional development: the Functional Emotional Developmental Levels (FEDLs) and aims to join the child in his interests in order to draw him into a shared world and to help him to ‘climb the developmental ladder’.

i.e. meet your child at his current level and build on his strengths to help him develop his weaker sides.

Its aims are not so much ‘autism-specific’, but the same as every parent would have for their child: increasing emotional engagement, warm relationships with others, communicating with gestures and talking meaningfully, engaging in purposeful activity and it maps out strategies, techniques and activities to achieve this.

The Autism Home Consultancy Programme supports and coaches parents, so they can help their child to ‘climb the developmental ladder’ and to grow the mental-emotional capacities of engagement without which other cognitive, social, emotional, language, and motor skills as well as their sense of self cannot reach its full developmental potential.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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How is DIR Floortime different from behaviourist approaches like ABA or Lovaas?

Behaviourist approaches like ABA aim to train a child to perform certain behaviours without being interested in the child’s own interests, feelings, ideas and different perceptions.

Their focus is not  on the child’s emotional relationships or in understanding the child’s motives or personality, but on stopping so-called ‘look-odd’ behaviours, without wondering what purpose they may serve for the child (like self-regulation).

Behaviourists believe that learning happens through mechanical repetition, like programming a computer or training a dog. The trouble is that using treats and other extrinsic rewards undermines a child’s intrinsic motivation and satisfaction, because the child’s focus is on getting the sweet or reward, rather than on enjoying the activity for its own sake, which is the only way towards achieving personal satisfaction.

The underlying assumption is that every child is able to imitate (which children functioning at FEDC 1-2 are not) and that imitating the adult’s behaviours will result in learning and mental development. But without understanding and genuine interest, rote learning tends to result in mechanical repetition, declining interest and submissive compliance.

The child who cannot make sense of what he is being trained to do or say, cannot generalise or use his learning creatively. Seen from a developmental perspective, ABA seems more aimed at satisfying the adult and what they want the child to be like, than on helping the child to become interested in the world and relationships, and to grow his own understanding, creativity and personality, so s/he becomes interested in learning how to learn for his own sake.

What does D-I-R mean?

The objectives of the DIR®/Floortime™ Model are to build healthy foundations for social, emotional, and intellectual capacities rather than focusing on skills-training or teaching specific behaviours.

Developmental -  There are 6 basic functional developmental levels that form the foundation for all of a child’s relationships and learning, with each level building on the next like a developmental ladder. (See Functional Emotional Developmental Levels, FEDLs, below)

Individual differences –  Each child is different with their own unique biologically-based ways of responding to and relating to the world, i.e. their strengths, interests, sensory preferences as well as their challenges or weaknesses

Relationship-based –  A child’s emotional relationships that are the basis for all learning and healthy development, because it’s the emotional that drives the cognitive, not the other way round. A child’s mind needs warm relationships with people, who tailor their interactions sensitively to the child’s individual differences and developmental capacities to enable progress in mastering the essential foundations

What's the difference between DIR and Floortime?

DIR is the theory. Floortime is the practice.

Combined, DIRFloortime is both a specific intervention of

  • numerous intensive, 1-1 sessions of undisturbed deliberate play
  • about 20 minutes or more at a time, about 6-8 times per day, preferably at home

AND a relationship-centered philosophy and way of life

  • encapsulating particular DIRFloortime principles and ways of being with a child to maintain engagement and foster development,
  • seeing behaviour as a communication (unlike behaviour modification approaches like ABA) and
  • a manner or mode of interacting with a child in a given activity

leading to “Floortime all the time and everywhere” (Dr. S. Greenspan)

What is the PLAY Project?

The ‘Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters’ PLAY Project is a parent-implemented practical application of the DIR Floortime model created by Dr. Rick Solomon, a behavioural-developmental paediatrician with many years of experience of working directly with children and families living with ASD.

Dr. Solomon devised the PLAY Project

  • as an innovative and affordable solution to the lack of effective services for young children with autism and their families (the cost of traditional intensive autism intervention programmes is over £30000 per year!)
  • in the light of massively rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism/ASD and
  • to teach parents techniques that are effective, fun and useful in day-to-day interactions
  • incorporating all 6 factors for positive outcomes to reduce the severity of a child’s autism
Is there a book I can read about the PLAY Project?

Dr. Rick Solomon is also the author of a wonderful book ‘Autism: The Potential Within’ about an autistic boy Jacob, and how he and his PLAY-Project Autism Home Consultant coached the parents to help Jacob to climb the developmental ladder towards language, play and meaningful relationships. It is a gripping read that helps the reader to understand the elements of DIR Floortime and the PLAY Project, as well as addressing behavioural issues from a developmental perspective.

What are the principles of DIR, Floortime and PLAY approaches?
  1. Follow the child’s lead/ motivation/ intention
  2. Attune to child’s affect and emotional cues
  3. Watch, Wait, Wonder: look for the child's intentions
  4. Co-regulate
  5. Move up and down the ladder with the child
  6. Maintain continuous circles of communication
  7. Expand and challenge when appropriate
  8. Remember self-reflection

Note: Make sure you also keep an eye on common sense boundaries, so the child can feel safe.

What is meant by ‘climbing the Developmental Ladder’?

The 6 Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities/ Levels (FEDCs or FEDLs) as described by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder give us a sense of direction. They are the foundation for all healthy mental development and grow through emotionally engaging relationships:

  1. Focussing, shared attention and self-regulation in order to be interested in the world
  2. Engaging socially, interested in and relating warmly with other people
  3. Initiating 2-way communication using gestural non-verbal language, copying
  4. Complex shared problem-solving, using connected patterns to communicate in continuous flow, first words
  5. Shared meanings and symbolic play, using imagination and speech about the here and now
  6. Building bridges between ideas and story-telling, using emotional/logical thinking, – talks also about past and future

- add my FEDL post card here/ or instead!

What are ‘circles of communication’?

Circles of communication/interaction are the back and forth of non-verbal ‘ping-pong’ or turn-taking that is the basis of all conversation. We want the child to take his part in the dialogue as much as possible, - which means that YOU must leave GAPS for HIM to take HIS turn. Often doing less is more: the adult should always aim to do less than 50% of the effort when playing or interacting with the child. Our most important aim is to help the child to increase the number and complexity of circles of communication and for him to initiate and sustain the dialogue himself.

Why do you focus on parents?

Parents spend more time with their children than all of the child’s teachers and therapists combined. It is parents who are the real experts on their child and the most important ‘agents for change’.

By training parents to be their child’s best play-partner, the child can receive intensive high quality intervention every day.

This type of play assists the child to work through the core deficits of autism.

This Autism Home Consultation and Early Intervention Programme aims to address developmental problems that a child needs to have mastered BEFORE starting at play-group, nursery or group-settings and in order to get ready to cope and become ready to learn at school. Autism Home Consultants are experts on autism and have been intensively trained to guide teach parents play techniques that will effectively assist the child to move up the developmental ladder and increase language and social skills.

Does ‘following the child’s lead’ mean letting him do whatever he wants?

This is a common misconception by some parents, who find it difficult to set boundaries at home. It tends to result in pandemonium, chaos and great frustration, because the child is not making the expected joyful progress.

Floortime does NOT mean just copying mechanically whatever the child does or letting him/her do or have everything he wants. A permissive approach without containment, guidance and realistic expectations, that allows the child to get away with doing or having, whatever he wants regardless whether it is good for him or not, is not ‘following the child’s lead’, but a confusing mixture of indulging him/her in the name of ‘love’ and what is in fact a form of emotional (though unintentional) neglect due to misinformed helplessness. In order to grow up well and to feel safe, children with or without autism need common sense limits, boundaries, discipline and appropriate expectations through a firm and supportive parenting style, that is authoritative (but not authoritarian). Children with autism or developmental challenges need this even more to help them with self-regulation and making sense of the world as safe and predictable.

Why are relationships so important?

Fundamental things that happen through emotionally-charged Relationships, which

  • Draw the child into shared world
  • Motivate the child to attend and communicate
  • Support self-regulation
  • Create a sense of purpose
  • Strengthen spatial skills
  • Create the foundation for learning math concepts and reading comprehension
What are the 6 factors for positive autism outcomes:

The 6 Factors for positive outcomes (Ramey and Ramey 1998):

  1. the earlier the better
  2. long-term (usually at least 2-3 years), interactive and intensive, i.e. between 15-25 hours/week
  3. working directly with the child, about 2 hours/day, rather than parent-training only (as in EarlyBird)
  4. involving and coaching parents as the prime agents for change
  5. recognition of each child’s individual differences
  6. to take place as much as possible at home and directly involving parents and family members