©David Sponder, Licensed Educational Psychologist
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
DIR/Floortime Intermediate

Terms to Know
  • System: A collection of related parts that interact with each other.
    • Static System: Elements interact in the same ways or by the same rules. Any behavior or behavioral or thinking routine that tends to remain the same. Static systems are relatively “closed” off to new information or variation. Examples include the ritualistic, repetitive behavioral or verbal [scripted] routines commonly associated with individuals with disorders of relating and communicating. The rigid, black and white thinking patterns are also emblematic of static systems. A static system can consist of relatively few elements (e.g., the movements within a repetitive motor behavior such as hand-flapping), or they can include layers of conceptual thinking (e.g., racism; belief that one method of autism intervention is the right fit for everyone and the way to approach every problem).
    • Dynamic System: Elements interact in highly variable patterns. Interacting members of the system maintain coherence and consistency through tracking and monitoring changes, and making adjustments as needed. Spontaneous, fluid social interaction is an example of a dynamic system. Members cannot predict with certainty what will happen from one moment or event to the next, so they must track and monitor the different elements and make the necessary adaptations that keep the system from breaking down (partners withdraw or leave the system; some might take over and turn it into a static system, or; chaos can happen).
  • Homeostasis: A state of stability in a bodily or behavioral action/interaction system characterized by regularity and global constancy in the face of small variations or perturbations; the regularity of a homeostatic social/behavioral system allows the partners to develop expectations and to anticipate next moves. Both static (closed) and dynamic (open) systems achieve states of regularity and homeostasis.
  • Uncertainty: The moments when components of the system are temporarily outside of the parameters of the system. The system is temporarily “out of sync.”  To some degree or another partners don’t know what will happen next, but expectations usually fall within a range of normality for the system
    • Productive Uncertainty: A state of joyful or positive expectation that something will happen, and where there is a very good chance that what will happen next will be within the capacity of the system (in other words – nothing is too scary; too loud or too much or too demanding, etc.)
    • Feedback: Feedback is the information the components of a system (e.g., partners in a social interaction) use to make the necessary adjustments to maintain homeostasis.
    • Allostasis: A word used to describe the efforts made to restore the system to homeostasis
    • Allostatic Load: A state where returning to homeostasis is difficult or impossible, which can cause erosion or irreparable breakdown in the system or its parts.

Teaching by “Challenging” or Therapeutically “Breaking a System”

As mentioned, the introduction of change (peripheral and fundamental variation) provides the energy that fuels learning (interchangeable with problem-solving) in Floortime. The Floortimer first works very hard to figure out what the child’s intentions are and to engage the child in long chains of joyful and reciprocal interaction.

The “regularity” of each other’s actions and reactions can create a routine of comfortable and predictable interactions that can be very pleasing and rewarding to a child. For instance, very young children seem to crave regularity in that they ask for the same games and same stories each night. These routines are somewhat static from a “systems theory” perspective.  There is a great deal of regularity to the way the system works, which makes it predictable and reliable. We know that regularity is one advantage of static systems.  The inherent predictability of events in a static routine or system tends to keep anxiety low, and a sense of self-competence and confidence (“mastery”) high.

Autism and Hyper-Regularity: Static Routines and Systems the Keep Uncertainty at Bay

Individuals on the autism spectrum create static [behavioral or thought] routines or rituals that can become unusually resistant to variation. This is because deficits in dynamic intelligence skills (skills that we use to keep spontaneous, unplanned and constantly changing systems from descending into chaos) make participation in dynamic systems like social interaction difficult and anxiety provoking for the person on the spectrum.

In the words of Rikki Robinson, “…to be autistic is to be anxious.”

Often, by the time we being intervening, the child’s static system behaviors are already strongly conditioned and automatic. For some, the point of creating and repeating their unique static system can become a kind of superstition to them – one whose actions ward off whatever the person fears might happen if they cannot do it right. Further, the child’s investment in the system is often primary: the ritualistic behavior or script IS the child’s goal.

Trying to redirect the script or the static routine can feel like misattunement to the person. Your efforts to divert the child’s attention from his goal can provoke defensive reactions contrary to your goals as a Floortimer to connect and relate. The IP’s efforts (and behaviors) to control against or restrict variation are what mark these behavioral routines or systems as closed, or static.

Fortunately, human beings are incapable of doing the same things in exactly the same way each time, so there will be inevitable variations. The very anxious person on the spectrum can be very vigilant and protective of the smallest details of the system, but there will always be some inevitable variation. The variations could be so small that the child requires no discernibly new behavioral skills to restore the system back to the way she wants it.

Breaking the System

To harness the energy a person devotes to keeping things the same, the Floortimer uses a variety of techniques that introduce temporary “breaks” in the child’s routine or “expectations.” These breaks introduce healthy allostasis. The entire set of related and interacting events constitutes the routine “system.”  These breaks can, if sensitively done, motivate the child to restore the system. This means, the child must figure out, stumble upon, or somehow formulate some way to continue pursuing his or her goal.  In other words, the therapeutic breaks in a system to promote instances where there is a need for some type problem solving.

Note: An important difference between developmental therapies and behavioral interventions that use a more static, didactic approach is that in developmental, systems-based approaches, the interventionist presents a problem to the child, but there is no single correct answer the interventionist looks for.  In other words, there is no single correct response. Instead, there are many right answers.  The Relationship-based interventionist is more likely to reinforce a variety of responses as long as they represent logical progression towards a goal. The ABA interventionist is more likely to [differentially] reinforce more specific or “target” responses. This is changing, as developmental principles and philosophy now enjoy increasing influence and credibility in ABA.

There are many ways to break static systems. A “therapeutic break” in the system occurs when the child’s efforts to restore the system result in learning something beneficial (positive allostasis). For instance, a common technique is to spark interest by making preferred playthings readily available and at some later point, placing them out of reach ([therapeutic] “sabotage” technique). You build up patterns of actions and interactions that the child begins to know, master, and expect, and then – something unexpected changes. You “violate” the child’s expectations (not as bad as it sounds!).

When variations occur, they can be too variable (deviated; allostatic load) for the person’s comfort and you will see them make efforts to restore the system (allostasis).

We know what happens when we break the system in ways that don’t work:

  • Breakdown: No one can restore (“repair”) the system. The child leaves, becomes disinterested, or no longer recognizes her beloved static system.  Trust may also be broken, and the child may not be interested even if you want her to do it.
  • Meltdown: You get hostile or even violent reactions meant to ward you off or to coerce you into play your proper role in the “interactive script.”  The result is unhappiness, frustration, discouragement and…
  • Negative Reinforcement: The person insists on doing everything the same way; refuses to allow any novelty or change, and because it is so difficult to introduce any changes, people simply stop trying. The person learned what works to get other people to stop trying, so now that behavior is more likely.

The examples below represent calculated and well-framed therapeutic breaks in systems of regularity.  These breaks are natural and can be unpredictable in the real world, but they not accidental or willy-nilly in Floortime. The Floortimer takes knowledge of the child’s individual differences and capacities foremost into account.  The Floortimer calibrates therapeutic breaks in the child’s system so that they are in the “Goldilocks zone” between being just enough to be noticeable (not too small; not too peripheral) without being overwhelming (not too large; not too fundamental; not outside the child’s capacity to comprehend).

Paco

Standing strategically in Paco’s line of sight, the Floortimer says conspicuously, “The truck!” as he sees the child eyeing a truck that is beyond his reach. Paco jumps up and down in anticipation. There is now a mental and emotional connection between them – the idea that Paco wants the truck. This moment in which both Paco and the Floortimer achieve this mutual understanding is a homeostatic one. “All right! Vroom, vroom, vroom!” says the Floortimer, reinforcing the homeostatic agreement. Paco squeals a little more at this new sign of agreement. To create even more regularity, the Floortimer gets the truck for Paco whenever Paco is able to use his communicating and relating skills in such a “together” way.

Now the Floortimer uses the regularity (homeostasis) to his advantage. He places two trucks next to each other on a high shelf. Predictably, Paco jumps up and down. He’s now saying, “tuck,” “tuck,” “tuck,” a product of previous allostatic moments and the use copious modeling of the phrase. But the Floortimer now “plays dumb,” “Which one [pointing to one and then the other]?”

The ‘playing dumb’ move induces allostatic behavioral changes in Paco. Paco begins to act like the children in the still face experiments when their mothers’ faces went still. At first he’s confused and little stressed. It’s not working. He tries whatever he knows how to do to get that truck (restore equilibrium or stasis) as well as some new behaviors no one’s seen him do before. He jumps up and tries to retrieve the truck for himself. That didn’t work. He tries repeating, “tuck,” “tuck,” to no avail. “Which one?” asks the Floortimer again. “This one or that one?”

  • The Floortimer provides a scaffold so that the child’s allostatic moves can be successful and reinforcing

“S’one,” “dis’one!” Paco discovered the new behavior of saying, “This one” in echo of the Floortimer. At Paco’s stage of development, this is all right. We’re reinforcing any effort he makes, even if the only way he can invent a new behavior for himself is by noticing and echoing.

Predictably, he starts to say “Dis’ one” a lot faster when he’s asked, and sister says that he said it spontaneously when he saw her eating potato chips at the table.

Rosa

Put 4 year old Rosa in some sand and she’s in heaven. Mom doesn’t need to do much for her when all Rosa has is some sand to run through her fingers. To the outside observer, Rosa’s “play” seems “circular” because it is so limited and repetitive. It’s the same action repeated end-to-end for as long as she has the opportunity. To a developmental psychologist, such play resembles similar, circular, sensorimotor exploration actions that we observe in infants in the latter half of their first year. However, typically developing infants move on. They expand and elaborate the ways and means in which they can explore and make sense of the world. They move forward in their behavior – with discovery and novelty and increased complexity and elaboration in their play. Rosa still plays like this at four.

One day, as Rosa played in the sand, her Mom sat down beside her. Rosa learned to become wary of this, since it usually meant that someone was going to ask her to stop. Few approved of Rosa playing like this, but no one really knows what to do to change it. Rosa typically reacts hostilely to anyone that tries to interfere or interrupt her sand play.

Mom had an epiphany one day as she made tea for herself. She brought a food strainer outside the next time she saw Rosa in the sand. Mom had a feeling it was a combination of the feeling of the sand running through her fingers and the sight of it dispersing into the air that truly relaxed and entertained Rosa. Perhaps the strainer could be something new that would spark a little needed novelty. So far, Mom has not seen Rosa use a tool to play in sand. She’s tried giving her pails and shovels before and Rosa never had any interest in them.

Mom sat down beside Rosa and as she let the sand go through her fingers, Mom placed the strainer underneath and the sand poured through the strainer. Rosa looked, and then pushed it away (disequilibrium; negative feedback). Mom tried again, placing a little more sand in there so that the effect might be more to Rosa’s liking (allostasis). It was! Mom did this several times – creating a regular pattern that Rosa anticipated positively.

Obviously, sand means a lot to Rosa, and something new like this is truly a big deal. Rosa was in a very nice, calm, alert and interested state of mind, and she wanted to keep going (homeostasis). After filling and emptying the strainer several times, Mom introduced a therapeutic break – she just put the strainer down. Rosa whimpered a little. She had a problem. Mom stopped and this was turning out to be very cool!

Mom moved her hand closer to the strainer. Rosa flapped her hands in positive anticipation, but Mom wanted to stretch Rosa a little further – she waited just a little bit more. As it turned out, this was a bit stressful for Rosa, but the uncertain moment turned out to be positive. Rosa put her hand on top of Mom’s hand and moved it to the strainer (allostatic behavior). “OK Rosa, let’s do it again!”

Henry

Henry is an expert when it comes to vacuum cleaners. He knows everything no one else ever wants to know about them! He’s only five, but he already knows the entire lines of most brands of vacuum cleaners – down to the model numbers and the available accessories. Ironically, up until recently, Henry used to be terrified of vacuum cleaners. As an infant and toddler, he screeched in pain and later covered his ears whenever someone turned on the vacuum cleaner. He had similar reactions to the sounds of the blender, lawnmowers, garbage trucks, motorcycles and such. We suspect that a reason that Henry chose to focus almost his entire fund of curiosity in the world on vacuum cleaners may have something to do with an attempt to master a scary monster – something he once experienced as a real threat. That hypothesis might be fruitful later, but for now, we’re interested in Henry’s static system. We’re interested in how we can introduce therapeutic breaks into that system so that Henry has to learn something beneficial in order to restore it.

The subject of vacuum cleaners is one of Henry’s static system behaviors – what others might call a “preferred interest,” a “highly preferred interest,” as well as a restricted one. Restriction refers to the static nature of the system because, as static systems are supposed to do – the system restricts information from outside the system (i.e. talking about anything else). People feel this when they try to divert Henry’s attention to any other subject. Like a rubber band, Henry “restores” the system by switching the topic right back to his favorite subject. If the listener doesn’t want to participate (or even leaves the room), Henry may still go talking about vacuums. This demonstrates another feature of a typical static system: the interchangeability of people. As long as the ‘partners’ in Henry’s monologous scripts play their parts in the way Henry wants, he really doesn’t care who they happen to be.

By now, Henry’s family knows far more than they never wanted to know about vacuums! They realize that this static conversational routine is repellent to real social engagement, and worse – it stigmatizes him in the eyes of others and it frustrates Henry when others won’t play their part.  Particularly problematic is the fact that “vacuum talk” interferes with Henry’s attention to what goes on in the here and now. He may or may not notice that listener’s tune out or try to change the subject.  He keeps going unless they make deliberate attempts to shut the conversation down (“Henry, no vacuum talk.”). 

Henry gets frustrated when others don’t play their roles in his conversational scripts as he expects. The ‘break in [his] system’ leaves him without knowing what to what to talk about instead or how to talk about it. He gets lost in other people’s conversations after a few turns. This reduces him to waiting for others to prompt him to say things or to ask him questions that he can answer.

Attempting to shut Henry down with a commanding, “No vacuum talk” can become a useful proviso for Henry – but only once he learns the skills he needs to engage in interactions that are successfully more varied and that do not include vacuum talk incessantly. But for now, shutting down the talk is asking for a fundamental variation to his current system, and it doesn’t work. Fundamental variations tend to work best in the child’s most skilled areas, just as they do for the rest of us (too much variation feels chaotic and wild).

There are several possible ways to expand Henry’s static “vacuum talk” with peripheral, rather than fundamental variations.

  • Incorporate more “people” or “relationship” into this talk about objects; talk about who has which vacuum and why they prefer that vacuum
  • Give the vacuums funny names (Henry might not be willing or able to pretend that the vacuums have names and motivations and actions like people, as say the trains do in the Thomas the Tank videos; in other words, Henry might think of the vacuums as things – not representations of something else – like a person).
  • Ask Henry to imagine what the life of the vacuum is (provide declarative models)