In a recent continuing education course, the importance of affect in communication was discussed. When working with children on the autism spectrum, increasing the child’s engagement is almost always the first step. This might include having the child look toward our face more or shift his body toward his communication partner. Sometimes it might include pointing at objects. But many times it may seem unclear why are we spending so much time and energy on having a child look at us? Isn’t it more important to start working on saying words?
Sherri Cawn discussed these questions in relation to the Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR ) model, which we use here at Evergreen Speech and Hearing Clinic. First, we must think of the child’s affect, or the “emotional glue”. This includes perception, feelings, emotions, and sensations of the world around us. In fact, affect is central to all learning. It supports attention, engagement, and how we respond to the world around us (regulation).
For the typically-developing child, affect drives our motivation to communicate with others around us. For an adult, imagine you have five projects due at work, are fighting off the flu, and your office mate is in the middle of a heated argument on speaker phone with his wife, all while you are trying to complete a course prior to your yearly review with your boss. Your affect is influenced by all of this- you are probably feeling stressed and overwhelmed with work. Your co-worker is distracting you. All these factors combine to make it much harder to concentrate on that course, meaning you are probably not learning as efficiently.
The importance of affect and its impact on engagement is why therapy targets these areas when working with children on the autism spectrum or those with difficulty with engaging. The non-verbal cues we provide through engagement and affect are so important to the communication process. This is what helps convey our message when we don’t use words. Once a child has increased his level of engagement, the learning process may take place more efficiently.