The Delaney’s youngest son, a toddler named Robbie, was cute, freckled-faced and full of energy. At first meeting, most people wanted to jump into playful activity with him. His whoops of pleasure in propelling around in a tyke-style car, laughter at crashing into furniture with it, and leaps and sprints around the dining room-living room circle seemed fun and inviting.
But Robbie was both driven and rewarded by his own pursuits, and he paid little attention to others around him.
Family stress was building as Robbie was in the process of a comprehensive screening for developmental delays. I came to know him and his parents in the course of bringing what are known as Floortime activities to their home.
I learned my trade as a practitioner of autism-related work from the late Stanley I. Greenspan, MD (1941-2010) and his colleague, Serena Wieder, Ph.D., who founded a comprehensive, developmentally based, relational approach for young children with social, learning and communicative disorders (Greenspan and Wieder, 2006).
Into this approach, I injected robust amounts of playful, musical activities. Though many people jump right to the “finished products” of music (such as an audio cd of children’s songs), I was more interested in unique elements of expected early communication, such as those found in typical mother-infant dyads, that also happen to be found in music (Malloch and Trevarthen, 2009)—and how I could harness them to the unique process of Robbie’s motions and sounds.
Dad’s Focus in the Moment with Unique Sounds
I was confident that if, instead of set activities that adults often offer, we worked spontaneously in the moment of Robbie’s passions (like his love for fast locomotion and proprioceptive feedback, i.e. “the crashes”), Robbie’s parents would find organic ways of inserting themselves into his play and eventually, to connections.
Dad claimed, “I can’t sing to save my life!” So, as Robbie ran around, I coached Dad to make beat-box sounds, importantly—in matching tempo—to his son’s lightning pace. This, Dad could do, sort of! Laughing at his own puff-bump sounds as he ran along, the synchronicity of their motions and sounds soon created a pull of its own.
When Robbie stopped, Dad froze his movement and sound; the moment Robbie started up, so did Dad. “Circle around the other way and block his way,” I suggested. I could picture Stanley Greenspan with his arms wide out to the side, not holding the child, modeling so well the concept of playful obstruction.
Dad’s lanky form swayed side to side as a surprised, then delighted, Robbie tried to get through. “Can you coordinate beat-box sounds and slip in some gestures with your hands running on your knees while you do that?” I ask. I wanted Robbie to have something to imitate—a mutual signal of his desire, meaning, “Yes, I want to keep going.”
Dad elaborated and deeped the play with more sound and gestures that served as precursor language symbols tied to infinite variations of affect. I reminded Dad, in his enthusiasm, to give Robbie time to have a reactive response.
This is a delicate balance of interpersonal rhythmic timing—if Dad reacts too quickly, he cuts off Robbie’s agency and budding communication; if he pauses a microsecond too long, attention is lost.
I’ve found that in addition to mindfulness in the moment, a sturdier sense of rhythm and timing over the longer term can really be bolstered by family singing and drumming together, letting music and its elements be joyfully absorbed.
The pauses and changes in tempo that we naturally make in music are powerful elements that can be bound to observable physicality and affect and then transferred to the timing of our interactions.
Meaningful Two-Way Communication
At first, when Dad was in his way, Robbie looked and pushed, the most basic communication. Eventually, as Dad kept blocking and offering his beat box sound in a rising contour, like a question (Fernald, 1989)—Puff-Bump? Puff-Bump?—a determined Robbie shouted out “Puh! Puh!” as they took off together.
It was a rich moment that marked Robbie’s crossing from islands of solitary play to extended journeying on mutual terrain, accomplished by the coherence of his receptive understanding and expressive, social response.
Dad’s vocal percussion repertoire grew enthusiastically as his son led playful activities. Robbie’s mimicking with meaningful intent also grew. Importantly, some of the psychological stress that infuses parental concerns over developmental challenges dissipated in the context of these door-opening activities.
Soon, Robbie and Dad made their way to an amused pediatric speech and language therapist who welcomed their unique shared communication. They began to build upon it with new and growing reciprocal relations.
Greenspan, S.I. & Wieder, S. (2006). Engaging Autism. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Malloch, S., & Trevarthen, C. (2009). Communicative musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship. Oxford University Press, USA.
Fernald, A. (1989). Intonation and communicative intent in mother’s speech to infants: Is the melody the message? Child Development, 60(6), 1497-1510.