Circles of Communication

The concept of “circles of communication” is a really good one, articulated by Stanley Greenspan in The Child with Special Needs and The Challenging Child. For children with high functioning autism, autism spectrum disorders, sensory or auditory processing problems, or other special needs that have self-centered behavior, working on circles of communication can help them come a long way.

Circles of communication refers to conversation (verbal or non-verbal) where two active participants respond to each other. If you say to your toddler, “Ok, it’s time to put on your coat!” And the toddler responds with “Help?” And you say, “Ok, I’ll help you…” you just closed one circle of communication. That’s good. If somewhere the communication process broke down, the circle is still open and the intended message didn’t get around. New ways of getting it across are needed.

Circles of communication are called “circles,” though, because the parent and child have to learn how to reciprocate one another. There is not real communication (or relationship) if verbal sequences go only one way, from the teller to the receiver. Dialogue takes two. In order for you to be communicating with your child, the receiver has to respond back to the teller. So if you demand your child, “Put on your coat!” and they do, that is progress but not ideal. Similarly if the child demands to you, “Mommy, put my coat on!”and you obey, that is good but not ideal either. There needs to be a flow where the message is on a loop that runs a complete exchange, respectfully, accurately, and on the same emotional page. The message can be non-verbal too, where there is a “flow” between you and your child playing together, understanding and building off the actions of each other.

The goal, as Greenspan explains, is to bring special needs children “into the loop” by getting them to start closing circles of communication with you. Children might not close them for various reasons—visual, motor, cognitive, auditory, social, etc. But extended time with them on their level can help them make progress. For children with severe disorders, the goal might just be to get them to engage you. Eye contact might be enough of a start. For less severe disorders, the goal might be initiation, where the child understands or trusts you enough to proactively suggest an activity. Or to interact with you in a non-hostile way. But no matter where the child starts, you facilitate activities with them (with their toys, games, talking, whatever) that forces the child to confront you and gives them opportunities to leave their self-absorption and join the world of others. Sometimes the self-absorption is unchosen and biologically driven and sometimes it is consciously adopted and antisocial, but the friendly and purposeful confrontation is the tool to getting that child out of the box they’ve locked themselves into.

Greenspan advocates this through his floortime approach, which in modified form, I wholeheartedly endorse. My main criticism is his morally neutral approach, which sometimes makes use of unwholesome speech (teasing) or behaviors (stealing a toy) in order to confront the non-engaging child.  But we have tried the basic strategy with our children for several years with great success. One has auditory processing disorder and the other has a sensory processing problem, and it has helped us open up their worlds and enjoy them so much more.


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