Some Techniques, Concepts and Guidelines
Many parents have reached out to us since the publication of Life, Animated to ask, “How does it work?” Many parents and therapists are already using the book, which has techniques woven into the narrative, tucked often inconspicuously among renditions of our family’s ups and downs, tears and laughter. Some readers tell us that they’ve worked p.180 (“Educating Zazu”) into their child’s educational plan. Others express delight that, in the course of their own explorations of their child’s passion, they stumbled upon some of the same approaches we used.
We’re working with Dr. Dan Griffin, the psychologist with whom we piloted Owen’s affinity therapy, to come up with a more fleshed-out version of our approach. Leading neurologists are organizing trials to see what fMRI’s reveal when ASD-affected children lock onto their deep interests. What’s revealed may differentiate the neurological profiles of different children within ASD – and more importantly map underlying capabilities that can be harnessed. This research will be directed toward building a broadened therapeutic model to use these affinities as pathways in the coming years. We plan to keep readers and the wider community posted about ongoing developments. This, after all, is largely a family-driven therapeutic model, a case in which the intense engagements and innovations from families will likely lead and shape research. In April, the New York Times reported that researchers from MIT, Yale, and Cambridge, inspired by Life, Animated, are teaming up to study the effectiveness of structuring therapy around a child’s affinity. This was thrilling news, and research we will watch closely; updating our readers as it unfolds. On LifeAnimated.net, we’ve posted the first broadly offered survey/questionnaire, the Affinities Poll, to collect data about what types of affinities are embraced by folks with ASD and how families deal with those deep interests. We’ll be analyzing and publishing that data.
But parents want some guidelines now. So we’ve mapped a few of the exercises we remember from when Owen was a kid. Originally, we called our technique “Disney Therapy,” because the classic animated films were Owen’s overwhelming interest. When we discovered, in the past few years, that many types of passions are being used in similar ways, we widened the term to “affinity therapy.”
What follows, of course, is a tool-kit drawn from Disney and most naturally suited to children with movie-related affinities. But it could be adapted for other contexts and affinities – anime, maps, minecraft, Shining Time Station and so forth – in similar ways. It can be exhausting, and a parent will wish from time to time that they never see another video or peruse another map. But, after trying to cut off the affinity, many parents realize what we found: that these affinities, properly handled, are more pathway than prison. There is no doubt that their deft use can build basic capabilities in terms of language, reading and general knowledge. But there’s something more important at work: these affinities are often the strongest pathway for a parent to express love for a child with ASD in way that the child can receive and return.
Here are few tips about how we used Disney, with references from the book:
Listen and learn. “Jucervose,” or “Just her voice,” is our first example of Owen reciting a portion of script, though it’s just 3 words. From there, everything became possible. If your child does something similar, we recommend repeating the language back to him/her word for word, as he says it, while trying to make and hold eye contact. This is a way to use echolalia – the echoing of sounds – to forge social connection. It may take time to decipher the phrases your child is using, as it did for us a year later to realize that “Bootylyzwitten” meant “Beauty lies within.” Once you do, say the line, with intonation as similar to how the movie characters say it as possible. See if your child turns and looks at you or holds your gaze. This is a way to use what is often called scripting – the repeating of movie/TV scripts – to form social/emotional bonds.
Side-by-side engagement. When watching videos, stay focused on the screen, which is the shared context. For animated movies, the child is probably responding to the exaggerated facial expressions and maybe the emotions they display. They won’t turn away to look at you, but you can remain close to them. Begin adding appropriate verbalizations. Repeat key lines, in the silences following what’s being said on the screen. You have to ease in slowly. A child initially won’t want you to talk over what the characters are saying, which creates auditory dissonance. But in the silences, you can also add appropriate verbalizations. When Dumbo wants to see his mother, and Timothy, the mouse sidekick, sees that, you can say, “He’s sad.” When Mrs. Jumbo puts her trunk around him and rocks him, you can say, “That is love,” or “He’s happy.” Bring emotive expression to the language, so they can pick up your tonality. They likely won’t look at you—their eyes will be fixed on the screen – but that doesn’t mean you’re not being heard (as Owen explained to us in his teen years). Try to add commentary. If you can play out what’s happening on the screen (wrapping arm around child at the same time Mrs. Jumbo wraps her trunk around Dumbo, for example) that is also very helpful. The key here is to build the early stages of interactive play that will mirror what’s on the screen.
Dancing. Many children will get up and dance in front of the screen. If they’re up dancing, see if you can dance with them. Dancing to these songs is a very celebratory and loving act. Respecting and enjoying it is respecting and enjoying them. Figure out which character they’re doing, which is usually feasible. Pick, if possible, the other character in the scene. If not, pick the same character they’re mirroring and do it, too. Once you’ve finished one of these emotional songs, it’s a very good time for affection. For hugging, high-fiving, laughing.
A Brief Digression:
Remember that what is on the screen is a context as welcoming and familiar and manageable to the child as the context a neurotypical person feels in the stroll from the kitchen to the living room. Home for some of our kids may instead represent a sensory barrage, and the manageable and hyper-systemized rendering on the screen is a replacement for the familiarity of the well-trodden parts of your own home. Viewing the onscreen world as your child’s alternate home is helpful. When you engage with that onscreen world, you are entering, with the child at your side, the place they feel most at ease. They’re living in this place. Think of it like visiting their home.
Use of dialogue away from the screen. Soundtracks in cars are golden. Why? As the soundtracks play, the images matching the notes are usually running through your child’s head. But because you’re not both staring at the screen together, this provides for easier entry into the context of each scene that is referenced by the music. The car is usually a closed, airtight environment – with the silent world passing by – making it an ideal place for speech and interaction.
An example: Let “Be Our Guest,” (Beauty and the Beast) play. Some children are fine with a parent singing along, many not. The moment that song is over, say, “Who’s that?” See if they say, “Lumiere,” Ask, “What’s he feeling?” The response, often, will be, “Happy.” That’s a common default word, so try for another option. Ask questions as a long as possible, like, “Who is the guest?” (Belle). It’s helpful that this interaction doesn’t demand eye contact, which is often over-stimulating for kids on the spectrum.
Sometimes, more verbal children will request that the songs be played in certain order – play track 2, now track eight, back to six. That’s because they run in a different order on the CD than in the actual movie. It is a common memory feat: a kid will remember which songs correspond to which number and want them run in the same order as in the film. This is a very nice verbalization opportunity. After a song ends, ask, “Which track next?” Then don’t say anything and let them instruct you. Ask them the name of the song, or what the song is about, or why they like it. With a song about to come on – out of order with the movie – those few seconds of urgency (change it quick!), will often elicit speech. For instance, if they want you to switch to Belle’s song about wanting “adventure in the great wide, somewhere,” ask, “What’s it really about?” It’s not like you’re withholding the song, but rather expressing curiosity and letting them guide you. “Be Our Guest!” “What’s that about?” “Dinner! Friendship!”
Use of fast-forward and rewind. Ask if you can watch with them a certain scene or song that you like. Say, they’re in the basement, as Owen often was. Cornelia might say, “I’ll be upstairs making dinner. When it gets to ‘Be Our Guest,’ pause it and come get me.”
This is a way to tap pragmatic speech and executive function, which are often challenging for kids on the spectrum.
Roleplaying. The selection of particular songs and scenes is part of a process whereby you are deploying parts of the movie for communication or emotional contact. Often when you want to play a scene, you’ll have to watch the whole movie until the scene comes along. When you get to a scene, pause it. Warn your child ahead of time (“We’re going to play Baloo, Mowgli, and the rock”). Have the child always handle the remote—they are the remote control king. It’s one of the key areas where they will accept and offer pragmatic speech. When you get to the scene, have them pause it. The most important element is to have everyone get up and assume roles. Hit “play,” and then stick to the script, if possible. Intonation is as important as mimicry. Try to play out the body motions of the characters and the child will, too. On screen, those motions are often fluid gestures of movement and interaction. After the scene is over, you should return to the movie. You want the roleplaying to blend seamlessly with the movie—the child’s desired activity. You don’t want them to feel like the desired activity is being unduly disrupted. Everyone laughs, you play the scene, and back down to the couch you go.
For nonverbal kids, or kids with very little speech, you may want to produce an easel or a cue card with “What’s Mowgli feeling?” followed by a choice of expressive words to choose from. Start with two. Work your way up. Several parents have reported doing this.
Context matters. All of these exercises are progressive, and generally used in a step-staged process. But, throughout, context is a key. One way you can progress is to find scenes that are matches for situations playing out in your home. When talking about walking the dog, for example, use 101 Dalmations, in which there’s a scene where Roger and Anita take the dogs to the park. When it’s time to sleep, you could do Dumbo in the tree. The idea here is to reference the scene and the idea of the scene, and see if your child responds (either to a simple mention of the scene or to acting it out). The Seven Dwarves are also very valuable, because each of them represents an emotion, so they can serve as emotional benchmarks. In conversation, when your child seems to be experiencing something they can’t express, you can ask, for example, which of the dwarves he or she feels the most like. You, of course, can also use a dwarf to reflect your feelings.
Language Arts. A good way to think of these exercises is as language. These affinities all have a sub-structure, an architecture that reveals a corollary in symbolic thought. That’s the biggest difference between affinity therapy and other therapies, like Floor-time. This is more focused and analytical in the ongoing use of the affinity, rather than a parent/therapist expressing an interest to connect with the child and pull them into more traditional interaction. The goal, here, is to move more deeply into the affinity, to know it and know the child through it.
Parents across the country have contacted us since the book’s publication. Some are speaking map. Some, speaking Disney. Some speaking Anime. One parent has become an expert on black and white movies from the 1940s because that’s where her son has invested his identity. The impulse, in each case, is the same: to find a shared language of love and support.
Approaching Affinity – A seriously fun way to play
A short offering by Dr. Dan Griffin
Parents have the most intimate and familiar connection with their children and have the potential to focus that intimacy like a spotlight on them. A therapist, by comparison, can only hold a candle. Parents are the most important people in their children’s lives, and it is generally safe to assume that children are the most important people in the life of a parent. Entering the realm of affinities can provide a bridge between parent and child like no other. Affinities offer the opportunity to narrow the focus and dive deeply with a child. Affinity strategies deepen understanding between parent and child. The energy source propelling them is “intrinsic motivation” – the child is engaging in the activity because the task is naturally interesting and enjoyable. In the often frustrating world of human motivation, it doesn’t get any better than intrinsic motivation. There is no problem with how to get a child to “do” this – there is often nothing else he or she would rather do.
Exploring the ideas and activities via Affinity Strategies
1. Do the math: God gave us two eyes, two ears, one mouth. Watch and listen at least three times more than you speak in the land of affinities. The key word is curiosity. The key to curiosity is attention. And attention is the key to kingdom. Everything becomes more interesting when we pay attention to it.
2. Suspend what you believe about the “evil that screens do.” The digital universe is the closest humans have come to date in discovering a “universal sweet spot” for all of us – but particularly for kids along the spectrum and with a variety of other atypical paths of neuro-development.
3. Attention is a two-way street. That I am paying attention to you is absolutely necessary to the process. What is as important is do you “feel” my attention? And does that attention feel positive? Is it an experience of interest, not concern? Of delight, not consternation? Of “just right” rather than “maybe a little faster, slower, nicer, softer, etc.?”
4. This quality of attention is crucial. Many parents don’t realize that so many of their interactions with special needs children are corrective in nature . . . though borne of a parent’s hope to help make the child better “for their own good.” Engagement in a child’s affinities reverses that. Cornelia Suskind often says, “respect their affinity, you respect them. Their chosen affinity is often at the core of their identity.” Children shine in that warmth.