Play to Talk: Communicating Empathy

by Pia

I will confess, here and now, that I am a newbie to the Communicating Partners/Play to Talk approach for increasing interaction and communication.  So recognize that I am by far not an expert, and take what I have been doing with a grain of salt.  I would recommend, however, that if you have real interest in learning more, join and check out the Communicating Partners Yahoo Group.  The admin there frequently posts different essays about these techniques that have been very helpful.  Plus, it is just a great, supportive group.

(Note:  Everything I talk about today comes from the Yahoo Group and Play to Talk by Dr. MacDonald.  All credit to him!)

First I will talk about the fundamental premise of this whole approach:  Entering the child’s world.  And let me tell you, it is easier said than done.  All children (especially children with communication problems) live in a world of sensation and action.  We adults live in a world of thought and language.  We cannot successfully bring our children into our world without first entering their world.  Children (all children) build understanding through their ability to accurately sense the world around them and to physically act upon those sensations.  That is the foundation of our cognitive “house.” Children with developmental delays often have issues with both their sensory processing and their ability to respond to those sensations.  Their sensory world is confusing, disorganized, and inconsistent.  Therefore, the idea is for you to become a guide who goes from our adult world, enters their child world, finds a way to interact with the child in a way the child can understand, and then gradually brings them into our world by being an accessible, fun, and interesting partner.

Too wordy? Whew…

So, there are five core strategies to get into your child’s world.  They are as follows (directly from Dr MacDonald):

1. Balance. Do only as much as the child, and then wait with the expectation for him to take a turn. (And sometimes the waiting can feel like forever. Take ANY behavior, sound, etc. to be a turn at first.)

2. Match. Act and communicate in ways the child can do now. Don’t speak in sentences if your child only has single words.

3. Respond to the child’s actions and communications rather than always telling him what to do.  (Don’t teach. Be a play partner.)

4. Share control. Be sure each of you leads half the time, and try to reduce your questions so you do more of showing him a next step.  (Questions require answers.  That seems too much like work to me, too.)

5. Be playful and emotionally attached. Make the interactions fun and interesting for the child.  Enjoy what he enjoys!

So, here is an actual, real, honest interaction I had with J-man that is an example of these techniques.  I posted it on the Communicating Partners site as a “Funny Story,” and a member (Carolyn) provided me with the wonderful analysis on how it was a great example of this approach.

THE FUNNY STORY:

So, last night, while making dinner, I accidentally splashed boiling water on my naked foot. (That is not the funny part.) So, as you can imagine, I am in a bit of pain, and on the floor of the kitchen with a cold washcloth on my foot. J-man comes in and sees my grimace and gets a little worried and upset. I told him “mommy oiwee, hurt.” He touched my furrowed brow and my grimace, made his own grimacey face, and then he took both of his hands, put them on my cheeks, pushed my cheeks up and told me “mile!” (smile).

Of course, at that I DID. (Smiled, that is.)

Then I grimaced again (on purpose), and he pushed my cheeks up again and said “No, no. MILE!” We did this a few more times. It became a little game.

And here is Carolyn’s response:

The loveliest thing about the story is how your son showed empathy…how very much connected you two were with each other…a beautiful thing and the central key to a relationship, in my opinion!   The story also beautifully illustrates all of the CP strategies!

Matching: You matched your son from the start. After noticing his concern, many moms would have said something like this: “Oh, J-man, Mommy hurt her foot. I spilled HOT water on my foot, and it burned my foot, and it felt really bad! Thank you so much for your concern. Here, come give me a big hug and kiss to help Mommy feel better…” Your son probably would have been able to understand everything you said, but it would have been way too much for him to say himself. Instead, you used his language and simply said, “mommy oiwee, hurt.” Then, for the remainder of the interaction, you continued doing and saying things that he could do or say, making the interaction both possible and meaningful to him.

Balancing: This was obviously a “textbook” illustration of balance in action! You each did and said about as much as the other, going back and forth for several turns. Fabulous!

Sharing Control: Again, a beautiful example of this strategy, with neither one of you taking over the conversation. It would have been very easy for either of you to have dominated the interaction, either you as the “victim” or him as the one giving you consolation.

Being Emotionally Playful: You two turned a “tragic” event into a fun game that got you both smiling! And all of us along with you!

Sensitive Responsiveness: You sensitively responded to your son’s communications, beginning with your response to his concern. And even though these strategies are supposed to be the “adult” strategies that we can all use to help our children become better communicators, your son was using this strategy beautifully with you, sensitively responding to your pain! Very sweet.

It seems simple, but it isn’t.  Not at first.  But the rewards are very sweet.

About the Author: Pia is the mother of J-man, a boy on the autism spectrum. She describes herself as “a fierce protector, fiery advocate, and in desperate need of a nap.” She has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and works as a NICU nurse. This piece fist appeared on her blog, The Crack and the Light, is reprinted here by permission.

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One thought on “Play to Talk: Communicating Empathy

  1. Jean Carroll says:

    Wonderful post. Touching AND informative. What a beautiful moment with the J-Man XXX

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