I am the father of a nineteen-year-old son named Graham who was diagnosed with autism when he was three. We could have—and on bad days, should have—identified him earlier, as he sat on the floor so quietly and spent hours looking at ceiling fans and then exploded with unexpected frustration about things we never quite understood. The first three years are now a blur, but at the time they were an excruciatingly sharp and slow experience of learning that either a) parenting wasn’t as fun as everyone said it should be, or b) we just weren’t very good at it. After three years, pushed by a pre-school (who knew that a child who spent all of recess dropping pebbles in a hole was not really okay) into seeing a developmental psychologist, we began a more productive, though in some ways no less challenging, journey. We learned to understand Graham, and we gradually learned to work with him, to get down on the floor and entice him, coax him, prod him, and challenge him into being engaged and interactive with us.
We learned about the DIR Model (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model) put forth by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, and we learned how to do “floortime.” Floortime is a way of connecting with a child that focuses on what is called “affect-based interaction.” This means that we did everything we could with our bodies, our voices, our facial expressions, and our gestures to get Graham alert, aroused, emotionally engaged, and communicating. If he wanted to drop pebbles in a hole, well, we found a lot of pebbles and then handed them to him—but then sometimes handed him a ball so he would look at us and complain with his face, or with a sound or with his body language. “What’s wrong?” we’d say, mock innocently, and he would scowl, and sometimes point at the pebbles and look at us. This was affective engagement, and this was a “circle of communication,” the gold nugget of therapy using the DIR Model.
We worked and worked and worked (and got lots of others to work with us) to generate as many of these affect-based circles of communication as we could. And sure enough, over time, Graham got better at staying connected with us, his purposeful communication improved, and his abilities to think logically and express emotional ideas emerged.
I became so invested in this experience that I soon decided to go to graduate school in counseling; I wanted to work in this field professionally. In addition, I was concerned about where Graham would go to school as he got older. Who would understand what we were trying to do? Who would both tolerate his oddities and use his unusual passions to fuel his desire to relate to and communicate with others? In fact, I did become an LPC in Georgia and did begin working with families to help them learn how to “do floortime” with their children. And as Graham grew into his teen years, I knew that there needed to be a school that helped adolescents to grow into thinking, feeling, self-reflective individuals, in spite of their sensory-regulatory problems, and their language, auditory, visual-spatial, and motor system processing challenges. This was the genesis of the program now called The Community School in Decatur, Georgia.
The Community School works with a small group of teenagers, all on the autistic spectrum. We are one of only a few schools in the country that bases its approach and its curriculum on the DIR Model. Almost every part of the school week is laden with affect-based engagement and interaction for every student. What we have seen is that all the students get better at skills that actually enable them to move ahead in school. They get better at thinking, at analyzing, at comparing points of view, and at expressing their ideas. This is what every parent hopes for—and it’s what motivates and inspires me every day.