The Power of Attunement

Attunement is our ability to be aware of and respond to our child’s needs. It is deeply connected to emotional attachment. Some children may have a very different temperament than that of a parent, or may not communicate affection in the same way, which can interfere with the quality of their emotional relationship. Parents can use a variety of techniques to increase their level of attunement.

Attunement starts with meeting an infant’s basic needs for warmth, food, sleep, safety and love. The gentle touch and voice used by a caregiver builds a child’s sense of security. A parent can pay attention to how their child feels by NOPH-00023303-001looking at how their little one responds to stimuli (e.g. likes to be touched firmly rather than softly, likes soft lights instead of bright lights, or doesn’t tolerate crowds). They can also look for and respect their child’s natural rhythms (e.g. needs to eat every 2 hours, needs naps every three hours, or needs a set bedtime schedule). Kids will thrive on structure and routine. Food is another area that can affect a child’s wellbeing. It’s helpful to pay attention to how food (especially new foods and additives) affects them—if you suspect a food allergy or sensitivity, speak to your pediatrician. Food allergies can cause a child to be fussy, overly tired, or hyper.

Children need your help to understand their own emotions. Mirroring and emotional labeling are techniques used to help children make sense of their feelings. They often respond to non-verbal communication first. If a child hurts himself and you respond with a big smile when he looks to you for comfort, you are unwittingly confusing his emotional lexicon. It is best if your face reflects the emotion they feel inside, followed by a label, such as: “Ouch! That hurts!”, and then reassure him. Children especially need help with strong emotions such as frustration and anger. A phrase like, “You’re mad! It’s hard to share your toys,” along with a facial expression reflecting his emotion, will go a long way to reassure him that emotions are part of normal life and therefore don’t have to feel unsafe. As they get older, you can help them to communicate more complex feelings.

Stories and narratives are key to emotional intelligence and communication. They help kids build empathy, and understand choices and consequences. Your children learn from hearing how others experienced a situation. The more you read and share your own stories with your child, the more they will understand themselves and others. Stories and narrative also help them learn to communicate how they feel.

Make discipline about their actions, not them. Kids need fair rules and consistent consequences. Tell them exactly what they did wrong, and why it was not acceptable. The consequence should be tied to their actions, not failure to meet your expectations. You should also sound firm, but not angry. The minute a child hears the anger in his caregiver’s voice, he is too busy dealing with his fear response to hear the lesson at hand.

Our society is very focused on goals and milestones, but it is the small stepping stones in between that make the experience memorable. Your child may have her limits but she tries hard every day. Take a moment to honor that, and praise her effort instead of the result. This helps create the foundation for respect, self-worth and resilience. It also helps you accept your child for what she is capable of doing in that moment.

And finally, attunement is built through respect: physical, emotional and spatial. We have covered parenting techniques to improve attunement to your child’s emotional and physical needs above, but what does respecting their spatial needs mean? It means letting go of your worries, letting your children have their space, and allowing them free-unstructured playtime and quiet time. We all need space in order to grow. Kids learn from their mistakes, and being allowed to figure things out for themselves. They feel safer when their parents trust them to explore, experience and grow.

We hope this article helps increase your understanding of your child’s individuality. CDI’s therapy team is great resource for parents who want to learn more about attunement, emotional attachment, mirroring, emotional labeling and parenting.


Self Regulation: Important Predictor of Success

What do you think of when you hear the term self-regulation? Parents usually envision a well behaved child: calm and obedient. For a therapist, self-regulation sits at the intersection53
of a child’s neurological and biological function, emotional regulation, and cognitive and social abilities. These abilities allow a child to function appropriately socially, emotionally and intellectually in a variety of environments. CDI’s approach to therapy is centered around helping children develop the underlying skills necessary for self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the first set of skills children need to master. It starts with the infant’s ability to process all of his/her senses, modulate sensations and self-soothe. When the nervous system is calibrated, we are able to adapt to changing situations, connect with others, communicate clearly, and focus our attention on the task at hand. We are less likely to show frustration, poor impulse control and inappropriate social behaviors. Children who master this crucial set of skills also show more organized thinking, focused attention, and better executive function. They are able to perform academic tasks that children with self-regulation challenges cannot.
Kids who struggle with self-regulation also experience poor emotional processing. These children don’t understand their own emotions, and are therefore unable to label them. This hampers their ability to communicate their feelings, thereby increasing their frustration and anxiety. They also lack the internal awareness needed to focus their attention and control their impulses. Transitions from one activity to the next are especially challenging for them, provoking fear and tantrum-like reactions. They also tend to be very sensitive to stimuli.
Children with sensory processing challenges often show self-regulation issues. Their inability to process their sensory world efficiently can make them appear hyper-reactive, unfocused or tuned out. It’s easy to interpret these states as poor behavior. Self-control, however, cannot happen without self-regulation. CDI’s therapists have many strategies to individualize treatments that will not only help with self-regulation but also improve emotional outcomes. Our sensory integration and relationship based approaches are especially well suited to help children facing these developmental challenges. Our treatments are designed to help improve sensory processing, develop bonding, emotional resilience and communication, as well as focused attention and organized thinking. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to participate in therapy to improve their child’s regulation at home, at school and in the community. Our therapists evaluate the whole child, including his/her ability to self-regulate. The therapeutic treatments we provide are individualized, and support the child and his/her parents and caregivers. Contact CDI for more information on self-regulation, or to schedule an evaluation for your child.

Vision Deficits and ADD/ADHD in Children

Vision deficits can mimic and/or contribute to behaviors observed in children with ADD and ADHD. The classic symptoms of attention disorders are hyperactivity, an inability to focus, poor impulse control, task avoidance and disruptive behaviors. In order to diagnose these conditions, the medical practitioner looks at a series of subjective markers. Medicines are given to treat the symptoms, but they do not cure the cause.

Data shows that about 4-12% of school aged children have ADHD. In addition, 20% of students in schools have visual problems that contribute to disruptive behaviors. It is estimated that 25% of students have visual problems that affect their ability to learn. These kids may not all demonstrate poor behavior, but they may struggle with task completion and poor attention.

What Is It Like to Have Visual Deficits When You Are a Student?

    • You find close up tasks confusing.
    • You can’t pay attention to details.
    • You are challenged by organizational tasks.
    • Words on a page appear blurry.
    • The lines on the paper seem to move or jump up.
    • You try to read, but you lose your place on the page.
    • You see everything blurry. It has always been that way, so you don’t know any better.
    • Although you get enough sleep, you’re often tired at school or when you do homework.
    • You feel dizzy, or nauseous, because words, lines, shapes move around too much.
    • You cannot read properly. When you try, it taxes your system so much you cannot sustain it.
    • It takes you longer than your classmates to realize what color is in front of you.
    • It’s easier to look out the window than at the blackboard.
    • School is boring, because you can’t do the work anyway. So you wiggle, get up, and try to get your classmates’ attention.
    • Your teacher finds your behaviour disruptive, or complains that you daydream excessively.
    • You feel different, not as smart as the other kids.
    • It’s so hard to concentrate.
    • You get frequent headaches, and eye strain.
    • Doing your homework takes you a long time.
    • You are unaware that you avoid work as a coping strategy.

The basic vision test commonly used in a doctor’s office or in school does not screen for the type of visual challenges that can contribute to a child’s poor behavior and learning difficulties. Children can test 20/20 on a vision test and still have problems with eye focusing, eye movement, eye teaming (convergence), as well as color and  visual discrimination.

Some of our young clients have convergence issues. As a matter of fact, children on the spectrum, or with sensory processing challenges, often have motor coordination difficulties which may also affect the way their eyes work together.

CDI’s occupational therapists look at a child’s performance while he does a variety of tasks. We look for signs of problems such as poor eye-hand coordination, misalignment of both eyes, poor depth perception, clumsiness and more. If we suspect a problem we will recommend a full evaluation by a developmental ophthalmologist. However, children who were born with visual issues often have developed coping strategies that make it hard for others to identify these challenges. Since behaviors can be an indicator,  any child with developmental challenges should also be evaluated for underlying visual difficulties. Experts recommend that all children with developmental delays be seen by a pediatric ophthalmologist,  especially before being diagnosed and medicated for ADD or ADHD.

Many visual deficits are easier to treat when caught early. Please speak with your doctor and your CDI therapy team for more information about the visual challenges associated with ADD/ADHD behaviors.


Potty Training

Potty training abilities are contingent on a child’s emotional and physical readiness. Parents usually become interested in transitioning their children out of diapers when they are around 2 years old. This developmental skill requires the child’s interest in the task and the maturity of his/her neurological system. We’ve put together some tips to help your child master this important milestone.

7 Ways to Assess Your Childs Potty Training Readiness

    • Your child is able to stay dry for at least 2 hours—Nighttime or nap time bladder control does not count, only day time does.
    • Your child recognizes that a toilet is for voiding one’s bladder or bowels.
    • Your child shows and communicates an urge before urinating or having a bowel movement.
    • Your child complains when his/her diaper is wet or dirty.
    • Your child is able to pull up or down his own pants and underwear.
    • Your child shows or communicates an interest in the toilet and potty training
    • You child is able to sit on the toilet or potty for an extended period of time.

8 Ways You Can Help Your Child Potty Train?

    • Model the behavior. Provide a potty for your child to sit on while his siblings, or parents, use the toilet.
    • Make it a group activity. Read books, sing songs, count, recite the alphabet while he/she sits on the potty.
    • Make it a game. Put cheerios in the toilet or potty before your child uses it. Tell him/her to sink the little boats (cheerios).
    • Make it a part of your child’s routine. Have your child use the potty upon waking up, mid morning, before lunch, before and after his nap, before dinner, before bath time, and before bedtime. It doesn’t matter if he is not productive, you’re helping him create habits.
    • Teach your child proper hygiene. Girls should wipe front to back. All children should wash their hands after using the bathroom.
    • If you’re home, let your child run around without a diaper. This can help with body and bodily function awareness.
    • If you are trying to train your child at night, don’t let him drink 1 to 1 1/2 hours before bedtime.
    • Lessen your expectations. Accept that your child will achieve this skill at his own pace. If your child wants to stop with the task, or is not making progress after a few weeks, respect where he is at, and try again in a month or two.
    • Praise the effort, not the results. Your child will get there eventually.

Here Are Some Little Known Facts About Potty Training:

    • If you start training your child before he is ready, the process will take longer.
    • Most children will master daytime potty training by the age of 3.
    • Many children will achieve potty training during the day, but will continue to need a diaper at night. Bladder control during sleep cycles takes longer to master and requires further brain maturity.
    • Children usually master bowel control before bladder control.
    • Children who are potty-trained can have accidents when they are distraught or distracted.
    • Emotional and physical issues can affect a child’s ability to control the bladder and bowel movements.
    • Bribing or rewards can backfire. A child who values the rewards, but cannot consistently control his bladder or bowels, will internalize his failure. Praise the effort, not the result.

Although, potty training difficulties can be a sign of underlining health issues, most children master this task eventually. It’s important to be patient and meet your child where he is at developmentally. Do not hesitate to speak to your child’s pediatrician and your CDI team if you have any concerns or questions.


Why Dads Should be Involved in Their Child’s Therapy

Family dynamics can make a parent feel invisible. All families are complex and rich with unique patterns that get created early on. A dominant parent can emerge because of personality differences and family habits. Both parents, however, have an important role to play in their child’s development. Research shows that children benefit greatly when their dads participate in their lives.


Not so long ago, fathers were often kept out of the parenting loop. The growth of two-income families in our society has recently changed the rules. Biology, however, does not care about societal constraints. Just like mothers do, men undergo hormonal changes when they are about to have a baby, and in the year following the birth of their child. Their testosterone (male hormone associated with virility and aggression) goes down, while their oxytocin (so-called love hormone) goes up. These hormonal shifts make both men and women more nurturing, but there are some differences. Males make oxytocin when they physically play with their child, while females produce more of the hormone when they hug and cuddle with their offspring.

There are many reason why fathers should be involved in their child’s therapy. Studies have shown that fathers not only tend to play more physically with their children, but they approach play differently than mothers do. Rough and tumble activities can help a child who has poor body awareness or needs more tactile and proprioceptive (receptors in your joints that register pressure) input. The increased sensory activity can improve a child’s alertness and interaction. When compared to mothers, studies show that fathers are more likely to use a toy differently than for its intended purpose. The dad’s approach, in this case, is helpful to a child who needs to expand his play repertoire.

In addition, dads have the power to influence their child’s behavior and outcome. Studies show that children who had an
involved father early on in their lives, were less likely to show behavioral problems later on. As a matter of fact, a dad’s involvement is a strong predictor of a child’s positive outcome for emotional regulation, cognition and communication. When a dad wants to spend time with his child, culturural constraints can often act as a gatekeeper. This means that a father’s participation should be encouraged through community education and early intervention services—the earlier the better. Researchers point out that with the proper professional support, fathers of children with disabilities achieve a higher level of well-being and adaptation. In addition, fathers who are supported by their partner participate more in their child’s life.


A father also has the power to alleviate stress on the whole family. Studies show that fathers process stress differently than mother’s do. They can therefore provide a calming effect on the whole family. Their active participation can bring much needed relief to their partner and their child.

Raising a child with or without developmental challenges, is a partnership.  Fathers are an important part of the solution and should be encouraged to interact with their child.  Please join us in our efforts to include fathers in their child’s therapy time and early intervention services. Talk to your CDI therapist for ideas on how to get Dad more involved.


5 Reasons Why Your Toys Are Better Than Ours

One of the questions we get asked regularly is: How come you dont always bring toys with you when you come for an in-home session? Although there are times when it is appropriate for a clinician to bring some tools/toys from our clinic into your home, there are at least 5 good reasons why your toys and resources are often better than ours.

1.  We can show you how to use the resources in your home differentlywooden-car-boy The first session is about getting to know your child, your family, and your resources (e.g. toys available, outdoor equipment, craft supplies, and more). An early interventionist might ask you to show him/her what you have available for your child. To a therapist, the toys and other resources in your home, including other family members, are so much more than meets the eye. They look at each item, or person, as a means to work with your child on skills such as communication, sensory integration, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, trunk control, coordination, focus, regulation. Using your toys and resources allows us to teach you how to look at your environment in a therapeutic way. This is the best approach to help your child. It makes your toolkit more powerful long after our session is over.

2.  Collaboration is the key ingredient
Our approach is collaborative, we therefore want parents to join us and learn how to best help their child to overcome his/her deficits. We realize that, once the session is over, the therapist leaves with the toys he/she brought. If you don’t have the same toys as your clinician, it might be challenging for you to continue an activity that worked well for your child during the session. The goal is for you to be able to continue working with your child after the therapist has left your home. If we use your toys instead of ours, you will be able to repeat the activity on your own and your little one will get the help he/she needs every day.

3.  Its not the amount of toys that makes therapy more effectivebaby-playing-blocks
Some of our most successful sessions have been with no toys at all. There are many ways to tap into a child’s motivation center and maximize therapy. Toys can sometimes distract from the actual goal. A child might benefit more from a wheel barrel race or an improvised obstacle course made from the pillows on your couch. We can use your environment in many ways to help your child. For example, pots and wooden spoons can be turned into a drum set, helping a child work on gross motor skills and coordination. Cotton balls and straws can become an improvised snowball race, giving your child a chance to work on gross motor skills and oral motor skills.

4.  Your home has what you need to help your child
No matter how little or how much you have, your home has exactly what you need to help your child. It has you and other loving family members, and it has the toys or resources you have selected especially for your child. This means that whatever is in your home has more meaning for your little one than anything our clinicians can bring into the session. Your daily routine is rich in opportunities that can be tapped into to help your child communicate, socialize and meet his/her developmental milestones. Our staff is trained to utilize the tools in your natural environment to help you and your child.

5.  The goal of therapy is generalization into your childs daily routine
Generalization, the real goal of early intervention, is the ability to take a skill learned in one environment and apply it to other situations or contexts. The toy bag comes from our clinic, therefore, it distracts from the powerful tools available to your child at all times. If we use our toys, you and your child might have fun with it during the session, but it might not lead to generalization of the skills learned. We don’t want the therapeutic outcomes to be conditional on our toys. Instead, your child’s unique environment, along with his/her family and caregivers, can help him/her reach the very best developmental results. Generalization is facilitated in a child’s natural environment, using tools, toys and resources available to him/her every day.

CDI is always happy to answer any questions you may have regarding Early Intervention and the many therapeutic services we offer (e.g. Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Child and Family Mental Health, Developmental Support, and Therapeutic Groups). Our mission is to help all children reach their full potential by supporting the relationships and environments that shape early development. We see clients in our clinic, the community and in their homes. We look forward to helping your child reach his/her developmental milestones.


Why Handwriting Matters

Handwriting plays an essential role in a child’s developmental and educational growth. And yet, many schools are no longer teaching this fundamental skill to our children. Researchers point out that handwriting seems to strengthen brain processing, reading abilities, memory recall, and learning. Studies show that keyboarding and printing do not provide the same benefits. With all the focus on technology nowadays, it is even more important to ensure that kids acquire all the skills they need to successfully learn cursive writing.


There are many benefits to handwriting. The latest studies show that cursive writing helps the brain wire more efficiently than keyboarding and printing. Students who handwrite their notes show more efficient memory recall, are better readers as well as learners, and show improved motor control.  Writing cursive works on the following skills: postural control, visual-motor coordination, fine and gross motor control, decoding, and sensory processing—just to name a few. Although it may seem easier to give a child a keyboard instead of teaching them cursive, if he has issues with handwriting it is very likely that he will also have deficits in his ability to learn, read and communicate. Handwriting difficulties are closely linked to learning disabilities. Some experts worry that if we don’t teach students handwriting, we will miss the opportunity to identify the underlining deficits they may have.

Occupational therapists evaluate each child for fine and gross motor skill, visual deficits, postural control and developmental delays that may affect a child’s ability to learn handwriting. Good handwriting starts with a child’s ability to sit functionally at a desk. If a student cannot achieve the proper posture, he will not be able to control his motor skills to perform fine motor tasks. His trunk strength is what allows him to sit upright for an extended period of time. Shoulder stability is also essential. Children who have poor shoulder control cannot perform fine motor movements. In addition, the child needs to see clearly as well as interpret what he sees. Occupational therapists will look at eye movement, visual motor coordination, depth perception, visual perception and then assess if vision is impeding learning. Finally, occupational therapists are trained to analyze fine motor skills, handwriting grips and finger dexterity to help a child achieve a more functional writing technique. They use fun sensory activities to help children master the foundational skills needed to learn handwriting.

CDI is happy to offer handwriting classes. Handwriting Without Tears is a multi-sensory program that makes learning cursive fun and easy. This hands-on approach uses a variety of teaching strategies to fit the unique learning style of each student. Children learn through playful activities, movement, tactile and auditory input, and object manipulation. It takes the anxiety out of mastering a new skill and meets each child where he is at. CDI’s occupational therapists are not only trained to teach this effective method, but they can also help assess your child for any underlining developmental issues that may affect his learning progress. Click here for additional information on CDI’s handwriting class schedules. 


Cooking with your child, tips from an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy adapts well to a natural environment. Many of our activities sneak in therapeutic work into fun and functional projects. Parents can help their children by making time at home to work on some of the same developmental skills.

The kitchen is a great place to experience the world. It’s not only rich in sensory input but it offers many opportunities to work on motor skills and problem solving skills as well. Here are some fun activities you can do at at home with your child and some muffin batter:

*  Mix the Batter:  This sounds simple but it becomes a different experience when you have your child use first his/her dominant hand to hold the spoon, then his or her non-dominant hand, and then both hands. Have him or her try to figure out how he could mix the batter by rotating the bowl instead of using a spoon. Then have him or her mix the batter by shaking it in a jar or plastic container. There are so many possibilities, your child can help you come up with other unusual ways to mix the batter.

What is he/she working on?  Increasing brain wiring and motor fluency, bilateral upper body movement, grading of movement, wrist rotation, problem solving skills, and following directions.

*  Pour the Batter:  Give your child a 1/4 cup measurer. Have him or her pour the batter into each pre-oiled muffin cup.

What is he/she working on?  Visual motor coordination, grading of movement, wrist rotation, visual texture tolerance (some kids have an aversion to wet textures)

*  Blow Bubbles in the Batter:  Use plain batter for this activity. Make sure your child can follow directions, especially if the batter contains raw eggs. He/She should be able to blow without sucking through the straw. Just to be safe you can use a vegan recipe or no egg recipe. Add a little bit of extra liquid to make it easier or use less liquid to make it harder. It should be “a just right challenge” for your child. He/She should feel like it’s fun, not frustrating. Pour a little bit of batter in a large cup or a bowl. Get a few large straws and have a bubble blowing contest with your little one. You can also play his/her favorite song and every time he/she hears a certain word in the song he/she has to blow a big bubble.

What is he/she working on?  Oral motor skills, following directions, auditory-motor skills (being able to connect a sound or word recognition with movement)

*  Turkey Baster Batter:  This is an usual way to fill your muffin tins. Have your child use a turkey baster to fill each muffin cup with the batter (this will only work with plain batter, no chocolate chips or blueberries). If necessary, add a little bit of extra liquid to make it easier. Teach him or her to hold the pinch on the bulb until the baster is over the right cup and then release. Work on counting cups, he/she has to get the batter to whatever number you call out. Play a game of right, left, down, up by directing him to your chosen cup. This works nicely for a child who is just starting to recognize his left from right. If you want to adapt it for a child who is still learning, put a sticker on his or her right hand, this way he will get to practice this skill without frustration. Offer as much assistance as needed to keep the activity fun for your child.

What is he/she working on?

  • Hand strength
  • Motor coordination
  • Eye-hand co-ordination
  • Following directions Math concepts
  • Spatial recognition
  • Left-right differentiation

We hope you enjoy trying some of those activities with your children. CDI therapists can provide you with developmentally appropriate activities that can easily be adapted in the home.


Parents & Play

Psychology experts, from David Elkind, Ph.D. to Peter Gray, Ph.D., all agree that the role of children is play. Free, unstructured play especially promotes learning in ways that structured activities cannot. Imagination is unleashed during freeform activities involving pretend play, movement, problem solving, and scenario exploration. So, should parents play with their kids? Should they help with art or school projects?play

Peter Gray points out that parents can be tempted to take over when playing with their children. Kids need to feel supported, and at times they require guidance, but they also need us to believe in them. This means that our kids should be allowed to direct the play. The parent becomes the one who in fact follows the child’s lead. This means the child’s interests set the pace. According to Gray, some games are better suited to accommodate child-parent play, such as rough and tumble (let the child be your guide), board games or card games, and informal community ball games in the park. It is always important to stay tuned to your child, your idea of fun might not be his.

Another mistake parents make sometimes is to commandeer their child’s art or school projects. We all want our child to do well. But what is meant as a show of support can become a general take-over. Many school projects in elementary schools are obviously done by the parents. This sends the wrong message to our children. We are essentially teaching them to be perfectionists and that their efforts are not good enough. It’s also a trust issue, since by taking over the leadership of the project you are telling them that they are not worthy of leading it. Of course, no parent intends to send this message; it’s our overprotective instincts that kick in and get the best of us. Children learn from exploring and doing, and they really learn by making mistakes. It’s okay if the project of an eight year-old looks like, well, the project of an 8 year-old.

Children learn from playing with their peers. They recalibrate their behavior when their playmates don’t like their bossiness, they learn to compromise when they have to negotiate the rules of a game, and they master collaboration through the natural teamwork that occurs when playing with their peers. Parents tend to be too hands-on to allow for those lessons to happen naturally. We often see play as another opportunity for learning, instead of letting learning become a coincidental byproduct of their childhood experience.

David Elkind is an advocate for more playtime for children. His work has shown that our little ones learn not only social-emotional skills through play but academic skills as well. He believes that over scheduling our kids with after school structured activities is stripping them of development strategies that can only be learned through unstructured play. Adults need to become more playful themselves in order to understand and promote unstructured playtime as a social norm. Elkind reminds us that: “children do as we do, not as we say”.



Why They Look Away: Gaze Aversion in Autism

One of the markers of autism is a person’s aversion to eye contact.  The eyes are an important barometer of emotion when we interact with others. The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley touches on the subject. Researchers believe that this seemingly anti-social behavior is rooted in complex brain processes, the misinterpretation of visual cues and functional coping mechanisms.

People on spectrum have described looking into someone’s eyes as a terrifying experience. Davidson and his team have conducted fMRI studies to discover the inner working of the brain of subjects while processing visual cues. It turns out that the amygdala (fear and anxiety center of the brain) is bigger in children with autism. He states in his book that: “The fact that amygdala activity is elevated when autistic children look at faces—even for a few fractions of a second, as in this experiment—suggests that doing so makes them profoundly uncomfortable, even fearful, and that when they look into someone’s eyes their brains and bodies are flooded with messages that they interpret as threatening. Only by looking away can they stop this onslaught.”He also points to the fact that when the subject looks away, then the amygdala activity decreases. What we interpret as an anti-social behavior is really a calming strategy that has been reinforced over time.

There’s a strong heredity factor in autism. Often entire families are studied to help understand this complex disorder. One study looked at eye tracking in the siblings of children with autism, who themselves were not on the spectrum. Interestingly enough, these children showed abnormal tracking patterns as well.  Even though they did not avert their gaze, fMRI revealed that their amygdala activity was heightened when they looked at faces. Normally developing children do not show the same abnormal eye tracking patterns and amygdala response. This points to a wide range of function when it comes to social interaction competency. Richard Davidson points out that in the population at large there are people who avert their gaze when dealing with others and yet don’t fall on the spectrum. They might be called socially phobic or shy instead.

Gaze aversion is not always used to avoid unpleasant fear-inducing stimuli. Another study from Northumbria University, showed that children on the autism spectrum also use gaze aversion as a means to think and analyze material. In fact, this strategy is used by all people as a tool to retrieve memories. This actually makes our answers more accurate. Professor Doherty-Sneddon, who conducted this study, says that: “Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”

All this information is a good reminder, that when we (parents, caregivers, therapists and teachers) work with kids to help normalize their social interactions, we need to be aware of the role that gaze aversion might play for a child in that moment. Some children use it as a coping strategy for dealing with an overwhelming stimuli or as a functional strategy to process and retrieve information. Any treatment approach, therefore, should respect where the child is at developmentally.

Floortime Developmental Individual Difference Relationship-based model (DIR) is an excellent approach to increasing communication and social interactions. This model of therapy not only meets the child where he is at developmentally but also works with the child’s emotions and motivations to achieve better communication as well as social interaction. For more information on how Floortime DIR can help your child improve his/her social interactions, please contact the Child Development Institute.


The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way you Think, Feel and Live—and How You Can Change Them By Richard J Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley

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