DIR Level 2 at a Glance: Engagement and Relatedness

childwithblocksThis post is part of a series, taking a quick look at each developmental level, according to the work of Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder in their DIR/Floortime framework.  As a child grows, they add new skills to what they learned in the previous levels.  You can find the list of related posts here.

When we meet children on the autism spectrum, we often observe that we may have difficulty keeping their attention.  It might be hard for them to stay focused on an activity.  Some parents describe their children as “flitting” from object to object – they don’t stick with many ideas or activities.  On the other hand, sometimes their attention is easily diverted to things we find unimportant or seemingly purposeless.  It’s hard to connect with a child who is doing this.

Before participation, engagement, and learning are possible, a child has to be able to pay attention to what someone else is doing or saying.  When they are engaged and voluntarily participating, learning occurs and new brain connections are formed.
Normally, this process of connecting through shared attention and activity starts when our children are babies.  But with autism, this infant-caregiver feedback system is impaired and the social development pathway isn’t working well. 
Level 2 Graphic
The good news is that the normal process of development can be restored when a child’s family and caregivers use strategies that help them connect interactively with their child. Once we understand about our child’s sensory profile, and are able to help him or her remain calm and alert (stage 1), we can naturally work on Stage 2 of DIR, which is all about forming relationships.

In this stage, a child builds meaningful and enjoyable connections with other people (starting with one or two primary relationships), begins to observe and imitate others (also referred to as joint attention), and broadens their range of emotions (anger, curiosity, excitement).


This stage takes a lot of practice.  Some things you try will work, many won’t.  But according to Stanley Greenspan, the worst thing you can do is quit.  You can’t keep going with this every minute of every day, but keep coming back to your child, with an awareness of the moments of when they are most ready to engage with you.

Make yourself inviting by observing and joining her focus of interest.
  • Get into her observational range; make sure it’s easy for him or her to see what you are doing.
  • Be animated!  Children are drawn to excitement, warmth, humor, and joy.  Exaggerated facial expressions help too.
  • Imitate what he or she is doing
  • WAIT for the child’s response.  It may be as subtle as a glance or a smile.
  • Observe her and follow her lead
  • Enjoy a joke; do something unexpected
  • Do physical activities – roughhouse, bounce, spin, run, throw, hide, fall onto pillows… you are the best toy!
  • Connect to interests; provide activities, outings, toys, books or pictures that extend interests
  • Demonstrate familiar or new ways to interact and invite your child to join in
  • Don’t give up!  Be persistent.

When You’re Succeeding, You Will See…

  • your child responds to simple overtures and shows curiosity and interest
  • your child will happily or willingly stay engaged with peers and adults for a period of time

To learn more:

Affect Autism is an excellent (Canadian!) website that offers examples and strategies for engaging with your child.  The Greenspan Floortime Approach website offers online courses for parents and a free guide to assessing your child’s development and learning style.

There is a video series illustrating the stages of development as described in DIR, available for parents to borrow at the SSCY Lending library at the Rehabilitation Centre for Children.

More Than Words by Fern Sussman is a great guide to connecting with your child with lots of examples.  Building Healthy Minds by Dr. Stanley Greenspan has clear explanations of the developmental stages and ideas for how to encourage growth at each stage.


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