© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C2
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Instrumental v. Emotional Referencing

There are two main categories of functions of referencing: instrumental and “experience-” or “emotion-sharing.”  “Social referencing” typically involves a balance between instrumental and experience-sharing reference actions.

Instrumental references seek information to remain coordinated in a goal-oriented activity – mainly for the purpose of getting something done or getting an answer.  Instrumental situations involve giving or following directions, asking or giving information, performing role actions in routines, etc.  Instrumental purposes for referencing include resolving uncertainties related to these situations such as:

Are you paying attention to me?  Do you know what I want?  Are you getting it for me?
Did I do this right?
Are we referring to the same thing?
Is this the one?
Where is it? (looking for the direction of the other person’s eyes, or “eye-pointing”)
Is this safe?
Are you telling me the truth?
Am I walking alongside you?

During the course of experience-sharing social interaction, each person “references” the other to see if they feel the same or not, on the order of every few seconds or so.  This is called “referencing for emotion-sharing.”  “Experience-sharing” or “emotion-sharing” references might include:

“Did you see that?”  “Are you as excited as I am about that?”
“Do you like what I did?”
“Did you think that was funny too?”

“Do you see how angry I am?”

“I’m scared – are you scared too?”

Children with ASD will reference for instrumental purposes more readily than they will for emotion-sharing.  Therefore, we are always striving to shift the balance towards more emotional referencing than instrumental referencing.

If you are simply using communication temptations such as placing objects out of reach in order to get a child to request your help, asking them what they want, etc. – you are likely to be stuck in the realm of instrumental referencing.  This may be the only thing possible in the beginning, but it is not the main object of C-LDT.

When referencing for emotion-sharing, we are looking for congruence v. non-congruence.  Either you feel the same way I do (congruent), or you feel differently (incongruent).  If I make a joke and you laugh we’re congruent.  If I make a joke and you look disgusted – we’re incongruent.  When we are congruent – I’m encouraged to keep going.  When I see you feel differently, I should adapt somehow.