© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services


A “reference” is merely a source of information, and a “reference point” is merely a point of information.  When we don’t know something (read: we are uncertain about something), we look to references and reference points.  I’ll give some examples of types of references we might use…

Uncertainty Possible Reference Points
Definition of a word Dictionary 
Location of a place Map 
Where did I leave my keys? [Look around] the room 
The Student’s goals and objectives The clinic notebook 
How do you feel about…? The person’s affect (their face and posture and other gestural indicators); the sound (prosody) or the way they are saying something; what I know about their prior experiences or intentions (context) combined with the above 
What do you really mean by what you’re saying?
What is a person thinking about? Where they are looking (gaze direction) 
Who does that belong to? Did they walk in with it (that must be her purse because she walked in with it; those are his shoes because he’s wearing them); is it closer to them than others (e.g., that must be their plate because it is in front of them)? Do they seem to be the primary or sole user (they are the one eating from the plate)?  The receipt.  The name on the object. 
Any of the above Ask: reference the contents of someone’s mind


As you can see, “referencing” refers to points of information.  It is not synonymous with “eye-contact.” If a person doesn’t know how to make meaning of facial expressions – “eye-contact” is a meaningless response or “trick” that we teach.  It will be a [trained] response to a cue, not a volitional behavior designed to get needed information and it will look odd when the Student does it.  More importantly – understanding emotion has to do with how a person felt before and then after an emotion-evoking event.  It is no accident that “motion” is the root of “emotion.”A core social deficit of Autism Spectrum [and other social, emotional and behavioral] disorders is difficulty in choosing the most meaningful sources of information to refer to, or to “reference.”  This leads to the confusion, anxiety, and the failure individuals with referencing deficits experience in dynamic, fluid social situations.  This huge and pivotal deficit explains the individual with Autism’s tendency to avoid novelty and form static (non-dynamic; unchanging) systems of interaction with objects and people.

Primary Functions of Referencing

  • To resolve uncertainty. Open systems featuring ongoing, fluid, spontaneous, relatively unrestricted (e.g. unplanned and unrehearsed) flow of information that produce and feature multiple moments of uncertaintyThis is expected.
  • To allow the optimal synchronous and coherent flow of information in the face of expected and frequent breakdowns in the system.Optimal synchrony and coherence in emotion/social interaction occurs only about a third of the time – at best. We spend the rest of the time interacting in moments of temporary flux (various degrees and forms of breakdown) and readjustment (repair; adaptation; learning).
    • Referencing allows us to spot the very frequent and expected breakdowns of the moment-to-moment synchrony and pattern of interaction.  This provides opportunities to make ongoing adaptations to restore the synchrony of interaction (“Repair”), and to learn the vast majority of our social and emotional skills in the process.

The amount of time we actually spend experiencing optimal synchrony, agreement, satisfaction, intersubjective understanding and mutual attunement among partners constitutes only about a third of the total time we spend interacting (see Tronick’s Mutual Regulation Model”).

This is because fluid, spontaneous, unplanned and unrehearsed emotional/social interaction involves multiple and expected breakdowns, as the relating back and forth incorporates new and changing information constantly within transactions.  Momentary breakdowns are inevitable and welcomed as sources of spontaneity.

What keeps such unstructured and relatively unrestricted social and emotional transactions between partners (members of the interactive communication/action system of the moment) from descending into chaos is that partners regularly monitor each other (because changes bring new uncertainties) and make adjustments or adaptations (i.e. repairs).

Continuous monitoring and adjustment is what keeps any open system from degenerating into disorganization, incoherence or chaos.

We learn the vast majority of our dynamic emotional tools from the regular breakdowns involved in human interaction

The list of these tools is too long to provide here, but the main point is that they are learned as we experience regular interaction breakdowns and try out strategies to get the synchrony going again.  We tend to keep the ones that work, and as we accumulate these tools, we are able to use them in ways that are at the same time complex but relaxed, diverse and differentiated, yet coherent and integrated.

We cannot and should not attempt to reference every point of information present or available.  We need to focus on the most important indicators of patterns.  The most important skill is to be able to notice the changes in patterns that predict the future behavior of others.  This in turn allows us to respond more efficiently and flexibly and in a continuous ongoing reciprocal manner (reciprocity). It is in this way that we can function effectively in open or “dynamical” social interaction and to be able to keep the system operating coherently (i.e. the ongoing noticing and repairing of breakdowns).

To be efficient, we tend to reference only the most key elements involved in the system.  We reference things when we operate on or think about them.  We reference physical features of the environment, the actions and communication signals of others, and the history of evolution of the changes involved.

We Choose Reference Points

We actually reject more potential reference points than we pay attention to.  Here’s an example.

You have a conversation with your co-worker pals in the lunchroom at work.  It should be obvious by now that certain reference points are primary in social interaction: what people say (their words) and the way they say it (the nonverbal communication that accompanies the words); the subject and the context (what people have already shared and know; the subject matter; conversing about what we don’t know and our anticipations and expectations; written and unwritten rules (culture; prior learning) and what is going on at the moment (the sequence of events and how they relate to each other as “behavioral melodies” or “behavioral gestalts”), the spatial arrangement of the people (they are in a kind of a circle, facing each other – which to most of us implies a mutual social interaction), etc., etc.  That’s a lot of layers, huh?  If there’s a bit of office intrigue and politics going on – there are even more.  I don’t think it is possible to make an exhaustive list of all the layers of complexity involved in such an everyday occurrence – but take my word for it – they’re there.

Currently, you’re talking about Hawaii, because one of you just came back from Hawaii, and you’re all sharing your experiences and curiosities about that.

But there are lots of “things” in the lunchroom.  Lots of objects, sounds; the little holes in the tiles in the ceiling; the contents of the refrigerator; the color of the walls and the furniture; the outfit each person has on, the location of the trashcan; the buzz of the lights and the sound of the refrigerator motor, the muted conversations going on down the hall that we really can’t make out; the sound of birds, and traffic going by outside, the temperature in the room; people moving around and doing different things, and the Oreck ‘Little Hero’ Canister Vacuum Cleaner hanging on the wall in the corner…

A person enters the room.  She’s not terribly interested in the conversation about Hawaii and doesn’t care much for the people that are talking about it.  She came in to find something to eat.  She opens the refrigerator and references its contents.  Another person enters.  She walks in and wraps her arms around herself.  Referencing the temperature, she interjects – “Is it cold in here or is it just me?”  Then she leaves.  Everyone notices her come and go, but they don’t necessarily make any changes – they don’t have to.

I have autism – and I’m very verbal.  I enter this lunchroom – and all of these reference points are there for me to choose from.  I can manage my job, which involves static systems of filing and organizing of pretty concrete data – forms, records, etc.  I love it.  I can’t figure out why no one else loves it like I do.  Oh well.

I happen to be an expert on vacuum cleaners.  I think about them and talk about them all the time.  Doesn’t everyone?

When I enter the lunchroom, the first thing I notice – which becomes practically the only thing I notice, is the Oreck ‘Little Hero’ Canister Vacuum Cleaner, a Trademark of the Oreck Direct Corporation, 565 Marriott Dr, Suite 300, Nashville Tennessee, 37214.

Apropos of nothing, I interject and exclaim [with the level of excitement usually reserved for winning the lottery], “It’s an Oreck Little Hero Canister!!!  I’ve got one at home and my neighbor in 403B has one too. So does my Mom. They sell them at Sears and at the Oreck Store at 2100 N Bellflower Blvd. in Long Beach!!!

This is sooooo cool!  It wasn’t here yesterday, so they must’ve just bought it.  Finally – I’ve been bringing it up at every staff meeting.

My lack of theory of other people’s minds and perspectives begins to show.  I walk right through the group of speakers without acknowledging their presence and head right for it.  I turn to the first person I see (I always forget his name – it doesn’t matter) and ask, “What kind of vacuum cleaner do you have?”  I can only reference my own mind, so of course everyone else shares my enthusiasm about the Oreck Little Hero Canister Vacuum.

I don’t notice (reference) how everyone rolls their eyes and lean backwards at the inappropriateness of my behavior.  They know me. I’m odd, sometimes annoying, but basically sweet and tolerated.  The others return to their conversation about Hawaii.

The person says, “Uh, I don’t remember.  I’m sure I have one though.” (Unread: indication that the person probably does not share the enthusiasm).

Oblivious to that reference point and the “What heck is this?” facial expression, I go on.  “Well, I have three.  I also have an Oreck Professional Series Pilot.  It has 360° Glide tilts and pivots, twin LED headlights and 2 speed settings. They say it’s unbeatable for shag carpets.  Do you have a shag carpet?”

Uh, no.”

The “”No” dismissal is another reference point that escapes me because all I can reference is my own thought process.  “But my favorite is the Dyson.  It costs the same as the Oreck, but it weighs only 16 lbs. and did you know that it expels up to 150 times less mold and bacteria than the air in the room?”

Terrific.  Uh, I gotta go now.”

It’s also mounted on a ball so you can steer it anyway you…  Where did he go?  I failed to notice that my ‘conversation partner’ left the room.  Oh well.”

The above example demonstrates a few key points that I will elaborate on further in the sections below:

  • Our reference points are a matter of what thing or set of things or events that we choose to attend to
  • What we attend to constitutes the window and the frame around our attention.  Inside this frame are the reference points we hold in consciousness and working memory (the contents of our thinking as we are doing something)
  • Emotion plays the largest and most primary role in what we choose to attend to.  Interest is an emotion. It makes some things easier to concentrate on, and for other things (that we are not interested in) – it makes it more difficult to maintain our focus.

Emotional Window Frames
The Reference Point as the Focus of Attention and the ‘Operating Window’ of Consciousness