The “I” in DIR: Knowing Your Kid
One of the important foundations of successfully working with kids is that you need to get to know them. Each child is a unique individual. Kids with autism are no exception. Under what conditions do they feel comfortable and curious, so that they are ready to learn?
The idea to understand is regulation. It’s the main concept of the first level of development. Self-regulation is the ability to set aside other concerns and focus on the task or situation at hand. This actually includes a lot of things, for example:
- Self awareness
- an ability to deal with emotions
- changing behaviour according to the situation and expectations
- Learning to cope with unexpected changes
- Relaxation strategies
Self-regulation is also affected by several things, and your child will likely need some help learning how to do it. There are lots of aspects to your child’s development and personality that will make it harder or easier for them to regulate themselves. The “I” in DIR stands for individualized, and before we can start to help, we need to understand what our child’s unique needs are. Here are some things to think about:
None of us can be at our best when we aren’t feeling well. Kids with autism have an added problem: they often cannot tell us how they are feeling. So we have to be detectives to figure out what’s going on.
There are many possible reasons for poor sleep patterns, which seems to be a common problem for people with autism. Sleep is really important for overall health and daily functioning. Most parents are already on the ball with solutions like regular bedtimes, wind-down time, bedtime routines, and so on. Also consider how they feel in bed. For my child, itchy feet are part of the problem. The tightness or weight of pyjamas or bedding might make a difference. Sometimes medications like melatonin or even antihistamines (if there is also an allergy) may help – check with your doctor.
You are what you eat, they say, and certainly the food we take in affects our overall health. Everyone should get at least something from each food group on a regular basis, and general guidelines for healthy eating are easy to find.
There is a subset of people with autism who seem to have gastrointestinal issues, and for those people, changing their diet can be a big help. But if you do, make sure you seek the advice of a doctor or dietician. It’s easy to become malnourished if you cut out major nutrient groups without replacing them appropriately.
Illness or Injury
If your child is having a bad day, or seems to be losing skills you thought they had, it’s possible that they’re coming down with something. They may need some extra rest and time to get better.
In the case of injury, it’s important to be a good observer. My 3-year-old once came home from a music class with a metal rod in his foot. The only clue I had was that he wasn’t putting his foot down all the way. I’m not sure whether it was in a less sensitive spot, or whether his sensory perception for pain is less acute than the average person. Regardless, it’s a good idea to investigate changes in behavior or posture. And if your child seems distressed over a period of time, take your child to a doctor, especially if you don’t know what’s going on. Don’t let anyone write it off as a part of autism. If you’re worried, you’re probably right to be concerned. The solution may be a simple one.
We sometimes forget how much of a difference fresh air and physical movement can make. There are lots of ways to get some exercise; even just being outside and connecting with the natural world regularly can make a big difference.
Anyone with a toothache knows how hard it is to ignore. Work on dental hygiene habits, take your child to the dentist regularly, and while you’re at it, don’t forget the optometrist either. If they are anxious about these visits, try making a social story to prepare and reassure them.
2. Energy Levels
Everybody has a natural energy level. Most of the time we are able to keep ourselves alert enough to function well, but not too distracted and energetic to focus. All of us do things like fidgeting or moving around if we’re too low; if we’re too high, we might pace the room or go for a walk.
Kids with autism often are too much at one end or the other – either too low (sleepy, mellow, inattentive) or too high (overactive and hyper). These kids haven’t let learned how to adjust their own energy level, and so they need help from the adults in their lives. Strategies might include time outdoors, exercise or movement breaks, fidget toys, seating that allows for movement or extra support, an object to put weight on the body, and so on. What works depends on the child’s unique profile.
Our energy level might change through the day. We can look for patterns in our kids and make adjustments to their day accordingly.
3. Emotional Climate
If our kids are in a setting in which they routinely feel “dumb,” if they feel unwelcome, if they have trouble joining in or don’t feel like anyone hears or understands them, then they aren’t going to be ready to focus.
All kids need to feel included, able to participate and also appreciated and enjoyed by others. They need to feel like it’s safe to try things. Emotional support comes from supportive relationships with adults, a sense that their interests and ideas are valued, and positive relationships with peers. There are good strategies to develop all these things – it just takes a willingness to learn and take the time.
4. Sensory Processing
Children and adults with autism often have a sensory system that is over- or undersensitive in different ways. Observation can tell us which senses are affected, and how much.
The external senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) inform us about the world around us. Everyone has different comfort levels with each sense (think of how nails on a chalkboard bother some and not others).
This video illustrates what it’s like to experience sensory overload.
In addition to the five senses that help us observe our world, there are also two internal sensory systems: vestibular and proprioceptive. The vestibular system (controlled in large part by canals within the inner ear) tells us how our body is oriented in space. Someone who is oversensitive would become dizzy easily; someone who is undersensitive might seek out thrill rides. The proprioceptive system helps us know how our body is positioned. It’s determined by nerves in muscles, joints and tendons. You can tell if someone is undersensitive if they like to hold on to things, or seem uncertain in movement activities. Or they might seem to have a body made of molasses, often appearing fatigued.
5. “I” is Also for Interests
Attending and learning is always easier when the topic or activity is somewhat familiar and we have an interest in it. What does your child like? What are they already able to do? It’s a place to build from. A really good book that explains ways to do this is “Just Give Him the Whale” by Paula Kluth.
Stage 1 in DIR/Floortime is about the child’s ability to regulate their emotions, attention, and energy level. As the list above makes clear, there is a lot to think about. But it’s important to take the time to consider how your child perceives and responds to their world. If there is a problem with any of the above aspects of regulation, it can seriously hinder a child’s ability to relate to others, to observe and to learn.
As parents and teachers, we are never done thinking about these things, and in fact, they’re important for every learner, not just for children with autism.
For Further Reading:
There are many, many books, websites, and articles on the topics of regulation, learning styles, dietary health, and sleep. But here are a few you can start with:
Carol Kranowitz is one of the pioneers who brought sensory processing to the awareness of parents and educators. She has written a lot of books on sensory processing. This is the one in which she explained it first.
Aquilla, Paula. Building Bridges through Sensory Integration: Therapy for Children with Autism and Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders
This highly-recommended book breaks down sensory integration, gives you help identifying sensory problems, and gives strategies for managing difficult behaviour, self-care, working with kids in home, school and childcare settings, and suggests activities and equipment for sensory development.
Kerstein, Lauren H. My Sensory Book: Working Together to Explore Sensory Issues and the Big Feelings They Can Cause: A Workbook for Parents, Professionals, and Children.
This interactive workbook helps children to develop a better understanding of their sensory systems by showing their parents and teachers how to create an individualized sensory profile. A practical tool for both home and school.
Robinson, Ricki. Autism Solutions: How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child.
This book is written by a medical doctor who focuses on autism in her practice, and who has a DIR/Floortime background. It’s like a “what to expect” book for parents with kids who have autism. It addresses lots of the medical issues like gastrointestinal disorders and sleep.
Shanker, Stuart. Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation
Dr. Shanker is a Canadian researcher who focuses on DIR-type autism interventions and self-regulation in schools. Here he lays out what regulation support can look like in school settings. He has a website at www.self-reg.ca.
Kluth, Paula. You’re Going to Love This Kid!
Paula Kluth is an excellent advocate and supporter of inclusive education for children with autism, and has a lot of books and an excellent website at www.paulakluth.com. A section of this book addresses regulation and social and emotional support. It also addresses incorporating interests into school activities.Thanks to Andrea Wiebe and Jackie Parsons for contributing ideas and links for this article. Next post: Managing Emotions