DIR Level 3 At A Glance: Two-Way Communication

This 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.

Communication is so much more than speech!  A lot of our everyday communication involves non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures.

The ability to speak in children and adults with autism ranges from not speaking at all,  using verbal language with a lot of repetition (echolalia), or they may be fluent speakers but with difficulty understanding nuances of language
 (sarcasm, metaphors, subtlety, etc).  They may have difficulty communicating their needs, wants, or preferences.

A common feature of autism, whether the person speaks or not, is a difficulty understanding and interpreting non-verbal communication.  Even if a child uses words, it’s not uncommon for them to have problems with the nonverbal parts of communicating.  We use nonverbal communication to understand wants and desires, recognize emotions, and get a sense of how others feel about us.  So it’s important to keep working on that too!

If a child seems withdrawn or unresponsive, it isn’t because they don’t want to connect with others.  They just don’t know how, and it doesn’t feel natural to them.  At this stage, children might do things like:
  • start an interaction and then fail to continue,
  • show they don’t know what they wanted to say,
  • use echolalia (repeating memorized words or sentences) as a way to interact. They might want you to repeat words back to them.
  • suddenly stop communicating or wander away.
  • communicate to get needs met, rather than to share experiences

If these things happen, it just means they are working right on the edge of what they are capable of right now.  Don’t give up!  Give them some support, and they will continue to grow.  This is just a stage in their journey towards communicating their own thoughts.

After you have made sure the child is comfortable and established some strategies for emotional connection and engagement, the next step in addressing communication is simply to take turns with each other.  A useful idea from Dr. Stanley Greenspan is “circles of communication.”  A circle is when one person shares an idea or invitation verbally or nonverbally – and the other person responds to it.  You can think of it like a game of ping-pong – if you send an idea to your child with a gesture or a word, does she respond?  For example, I wave to you, you wave to me – that’s one circle.  When a child is competent at this level of development, they will be comfortable with 5-10 back-and-forth connected responses (circles) – either verbal or nonverbal.


Continue to support the child in his self-regulation and shared interests (Level 1 and 2).  While those are in place, you can:
  • Engage her in pleasurable activities
  • Activate senses to get his whole body involved
  • Be silly!  Accentuate emotions with gestures/facial expressions
  • Respond to all communication as though she means it
  • Play simple people games like peek-a-boo or chase
  • Play “verbal ping-pong” – mimic the child, introducing small variations
  • try giving directions or hints using gestures or glances only, and no words
Be clear and concise – if you’re using words, make your sentences just slightly more complex than your child’s.  If they speak in two word sentences, you can use three-word sentences.  But remember, you don’t need words to work on this skill, and even for verbal children, there is great value in focusing on nonverbal communication.

As at previous levels, some things will work and some won’t.  At this level, you’ll have to work pretty hard to keep things going, and each interaction will last a short time.  But the important thing is to “persist in your pursuit” – don’t give up, and be attentive to your child’s moods and rhythms to choose the best times for successful interactions.  Choose activities you know your child likes as starting points. Challenge your child to do things to you, help him achieve his goals, and even add in obstacles and challenges to add steps in an interaction.

Also remember that this isn’t just about playtime – you can have great opportunities for interaction in routine activities like dressing or walking down the street.

You will know your child is at this level when:

  • he begins to express his own ideas, and you begin to have a sense of your child’s personality
  • the child shows desires by pointing, reaching, making sounds – she moves to communicate
  • you see some back and forth interaction
  • older children are able to initiate and respond even when they are feeling a variety of strong emotions

Further Reading:

For information and examples of doing DIR/Floortime with your child, visit Affect Autism.