Establishing the Social Connection - Autism Awareness

Establishing the Social Connection

Susan Sonders, M.Ed., E.I., L.D., A.I.

How do I reach you, sweet child? I have worked with you many times. Yet, I feel that we still have not met.  I get a glimpse of you now and then but you continue to hide behind the many faces of autism.

Today I watched you momentarily before I approached.  You were so pre-occupied with your own sounds and movements with your head down, running haphazardly, hand flapping, and screeching.  It was unsettling. When I approached, you remained indifferent and quickly turned away. I called your name softly from behind with no response. I stomped my feet, closely scrutinizing your every move and sound. . . no change. I felt invisible.

I called your name, stomped my feet and sang the first three words of your favorite rhyme, “Eeensy Weensy Spider.”  Suddenly you stopped moving.  A proud smile crossed my face.  That was your first “turn.”  Now I could begin to shape your responses into meaningful social connections.  A turn-taking sequence had begun. Over the next few months we will strive to socially connect in giggle time sessions.  It is there that we will meet and explore the world of laughter.  The world of laughter is a different place.  It’s where we will let time pass slowly by and become lost in the sound of joy.

Giggle time is a research based technique that is made up of a series of giggle games, joint action routines or play formats. The adult becomes the play tutor as reciprocal playful interactions are created with the child and then sustained for increasing amounts of time. These joint action routines are repetitively played and as the child’s staying power increases, they are varied to entice the child towards reaching higher communicative levels.

What is a giggle game or a joint action routine?

A giggle game consists of a ten-minute interval. During this time, the adult becomes the playground as he engages the child in roughhouse play routines. The primary goal of a giggle game is to build the social relationship between the child and adult so that a rich warm natural environment is created, where pre-intentional communication can be shaped and joint attention can flourish. While engaging, the adult and child build a sequence of communicative turns together.  The adult looks for behaviors in the child that might be interpreted as communicative. He then shapes those behaviors by responding in an interesting way. Each response is called a turn. Over the next few minutes, the adult continues to shape a series of movements, gestures and vocalizations into communicative turns with the child.  As this sequence develops, a beginning, middle and end of the routine are formulated in the mind of the adult.  Once formulated, it becomes a “giggle game” routine and is played repetitively until the ten-minute giggle time period ends. These turn-taking routines are the basis of pre-conversational speech. They are mini conversations with each partner taking a communicative turn and waiting for the turn of the other.  Just as in a conversation, joint attention, staying in close proximity, enjoying each other’s company and social reciprocity are involved.

How do random behaviors and sounds that do not have meaning, become communicative?

As Stanley Greenspan states, “the key is to create a sense of intent around the component parts of the child that are working.” Giggle time heightens your awareness of what those component parts are, helps you assign communicative meaning to those parts and moves you both into a social partnership of trust. It builds on existing strengths while specifically teaching the essential pragmatic skills that are missing.

At this point, the child is at a perlocutionary or pre-intentional communication level.  The child is not yet aware that his behaviors can be interpreted as a form of communication.  He does not anticipate social responses contingent upon his behavior, nor does he direct verbal or nonverbal signals to others.  It is up to the adult to assign meaning to the child’s potentially communicative behaviors, giving them intent.  The adult gives them communicative intent by assigning meaning to random nonsymbolic behaviors.

He can assign meaning by accepting the child’s glance, hesitation, expression, smile or sound as a possible turn in a giggle game sequence. Through the adult’s consistent responsiveness to a behavior, the child will learn that he can predictably affect another.  He will be on his way to developing the ability to communicate.

Can you give an example of how to create a giggle game?

Example:  The following giggle game captures the moment and creates a spontaneous game out of the child’s actions.  It illustrates how a game consists of a series of turns, how the adult assigns meaning to the child’s ordinary actions and how the game’s beginning, middle and ending are formed.  It illustrates how the turns are initially altered by the adult and child until a mutually agreed upon sequence emerges.

Problem:  Marcus is very serious, rarely exhibiting smiles or facial pleasure.  Any attempt to formally engage him in a lap, floor, or sitting position results in resistance.  He has very little staying power in a small play space and flees within seconds.

Solution:  Seize the moment and take advantage of an ordinary action that he exhibits.  Construct a play space that temporarily expands and then closes up again, allowing him a feeling of safety and control as it expands and he flees.  Give meaning to his moving/standing positions, forming them into turns.  Use his movement away as one of his turns in the turn-taking sequence.

Child: Marcus has just turned to walk away from the adult once again.  As he turns, his back is towards the adult. The adult begins to shape turning to walk away as a possible child’s turn and the beginning of a giggle game.
Adult: “Ahhhhhh.” Begins softly and then becomes louder, with a building crescendo of sound.
Child: Continues to walk, is now three feet away.  Walking away could be a possible child’s turn and the middle of a giggle game.
Adult: Grabs Marcus from behind and playfully pulls him down to the floor. This could be an adult’s turn and possible ending if he demonstrates subtle pleasure or even passive acceptance.
Child: Quiet, startled. No social smile. Gets back up and turns to walk away again. This action is the same turn that the adult gave meaning to before, and thus, the game repeats.
Adult: “Ahhhhhh.” This is the same initial adult turn that worked favorably before.
Child:  Stops three feet away and waits.  He is forming a new middle. He is beginning to anticipate the sequence of turns and demonstrate interest.
Adult: Grabs Marcus and pulls him close for a tight bear hug.   Adult is attempting to find a new ending. He did not like being pulled to the floor.
Child:  Laughs. The new ending worked which is evident by the child’s favorable response.
Adult:  Laughs and lets go of him.
Child: Gets back up, begins to turn and walk away again.  The beginning is consistently working and remains the same. Neither the adult nor the child has changed it.
Adult: “Ahhhhhh.”
Child:  Stops, waits, turns head, looking over his shoulder and makes eye contact with adult.  He has formed a new middle.
Adult: Grabs him and pulls him close for a tight bear hug.  Same ending.
Child: Laughs.
Adult: Laughs and lets go of him.
Sequence is repeated for ten minutes.

Why does a giggle game need a beginning, middle and an end?

It is imperative to the success of each game.  With these three components in mind, a flow will develop in the routine; much like the flow between partners involved in conversational speech.  With a particular beginning, middle and ending, it becomes a routine that can be played in the same way over a period of time.  Without these components, the game continues endlessly and the child never experiences a sense of mastery since the climax or ending, never takes place. Staying power would definitely be lost.

How many turns are in a giggle game?

A game or joint action routine can be made up of as little as four turns, two for the child and two for the adult, or as many as twelve or more.  Keep in mind however, that each game is played repetitively for ten minutes and the adult must repeat his successful turns in exactly the same way each time. Thus, the amount of turns in a game sequence depends on the adult’s memory!  Verbatim repetition by the adult is necessary so each partner can anticipate the games sequence.

What about age-appropriate curriculum?  Doesn’t it look babyish to play infant games with pre-school children?

We must begin where the child is. It may appear babyish for a short time but the games will quickly evolve to a higher level as the child develops communicative skills.

I’m looking for an ending to one of our games.  What if a tickle doesn’t produce the desired affect?

It is not entirely up to you to figure out the turns of the game. The child makes up 50% of the game with his turns and your 50% of the turns are also contingent upon him. If you do a turn and he doesn’t demonstrate interest, drop it and try something else.  Try a different ending each time the game is repeated in the ten minute period. Keep trying a different ending until you come across one that the child enjoys. Watch the child very carefully for interest. If the child is sensitive to
light touch, try something, other than a tickle, that the child might like.  A tossed scarf, a firm tackle to the ground, a spin, flip off your lap, noise blower, flashlight or a loud “Boo!” may prove to be effective.  Check with an occupational therapist and be aware of the child’s sensory needs. These needs and preferences will guide you as to the child’s likes and dislikes.  Incorporate his likes into your turns of the game and stay away from his dislikes.

How do you know which behavior should be assigned meaning?  He does so many random movements. Which action or sound do you choose?

Choose one or more of the pragmatic pre-language skills that the child needs to acquire or demonstrate with higher frequency.  Fleeting eye contact, gesture, movement, social smile, touch, proximity to an object or you, or sporadic vocalization are just a few.

What if the child’s turn is only a half-second sideways glance, a hesitation or a startle response?

You must begin where the child is.  Be patient and accept emerging skills as a possible turn right now by assigning meaning to it. You assign meaning to it by quickly playing your next turn.

How do I begin when his back is continually to me, he is running a way or ignoring me?

The child is purposefully trying to ignore you.  Dr. Stanley Greenspan states that ignoring “is a form of interaction, for it is an acknowledgment of your presence.  Given this acknowledgment, you have a chance to build a longer, more positive, interaction.” Stay within a foot and imitate him.  When the opportunity presents itself, “be playfully obtrusive.” Dr. Greenspan states that you can “playfully insert yourself in a way that makes it harder for him to ignore you.” Gradually work your way into his attention.  Get a step ahead and arrange a collision.  Attempt various obtrusions and if they don’t work, go back to imitation.  Ignoring is a “purposeful response”  (Greenspan 1998) and is the beginning of an interaction.  Imitation is also a form of interaction and is a game that two can play. His initiations and sounds will increase as he waits and watches for your imitation. It is also a place to begin.

If a child develops giggle time routines will conversational speech follow?

Not necessarily, however, the chances are far greater than if he never developed these skills. Through giggle time, whether or not “speech” develops, the child will become a communicator.  He will no longer be lost in isolation but will seek out the company of others, happily engaging in social interaction.

How do giggle games lay the foundation for conversational speech?

Until a child enjoys being near you, engages you in a back and forth manner and strains to keep you involved, the possibility of developing conversational speech is slim.  Of course there are many variables that make up the development of conversational speech but tools developed during giggle time are an integral piece of the foundation.  Many of these tools come under the heading of pragmatics or pre-language skills. Pragmatics is the relationship between the speaker and listener.  It is a system of social interaction that may or may not include speech. Staying in proximity of another, eye contact, joint attention, social smile, intentional gestures directed to another, movements, sounds, continuing an interaction, taking turns communicating verbally and/or non-verbally are but a few.  When speech is involved, it is the ability to use that language to communicate effectively. Giggle games lay the framework that conversational speech is built upon.

For more information, see the following reference:
Sonders, Susan (2003).  Giggle Time Establishing the Social Connection.  A Program to Develop the Communication Skills of Children with Autism, Aspergers Syndrome and PDD.  United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Susan Sonders, M.Ed., E.I., L.D., A.I.
Communication Specialist
Consultant for Autism and Related Disabilities

© Susan Kaye-Aud Sonders 2004

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