I read recently (don't ask me how I missed this with the first two kiddos) that babies in utero like it and may actually respond to you rubbing your tummy. So I tried it. Voila! Thump. Rub, rub. A thump back, in the same place. Rub, rub. Thump. Rub. Thump. On numerous days this has gone on for numbers of minutes at a time. It's like a little science experiment. Or our first conversation.
That got me thinking about Floortime (an approach to treating autism that I've been a big fan of). Floortime encourages you to tune in to your child's needs and interests, joining in with them in those interests as a way to help entice your child to interact and engage with you. It's about following your child's lead.
A big part of Floortime involves "opening and closing circles of communication." What does that mean? Essentially, you notice what your child is doing and join in with them (opening a circle). The child notices and responds to your overtures, participating with you and helping the communication to continue (closing the circle). So for example, your child is playing with blocks. You come over and sneakily take one block away. The child notices and reaches up to grab it. That's opening and closing a circle. You give it back and take a different block. The child laughs and sees this is a game. Maybe she gives you another block, or tries to stop you from taking more. These back and forth moments seem so simple, but really, they aren't.
These early morning baby conversations are actually the very first form of opening and closing circles. I notice what she's doing and respond. She responds back.
You don't realize how amazing these types of interactions are until they are missing.
People are always talking about early autism signs, and at times they tend to focus on some of the more stereotypical, obvious things: a lack of speech, hand-flapping, toe-walking. As I began to delve into Floortime and discussions of how children truly develop cognitively and socially, I realized sometimes we look in the wrong places, and sometimes there are underlying issues that manifest in such subtle ways that really have to be looking for them to know they are there.
Ethan was a quiet baby and toddler. Very quiet. And while I don't want anyone who has a baby who seems content to sit back and observe the world to get panicky, I will say this: I've learned that most typical babies, when you work to communicate with them, will start finding a way to "talk" back to you, even if they can't talk. Beyond that, after awhile they will work on discovering ways to get your attention. These are early ways of "opening and closing" those circles of communication.
When I go back and look at videos of my interactions with Ethan when he's little, I notice two things. One is that there are many times when he sees genuinely happy to see me. But I also see that he rarely attempts to talk back. He doesn't do anything to make me turn my head, to look at him, to get my attention. I open circles of communication, and they are left there hanging. This is a red flag that is so subtle most of us would never notice -- especially if our child is giving us big grins.
This video was taken when Ethan was about a year old (forgive my annoying voice). It's one of several I took of him from the ages of maybe 10 to 20 months where he is enamored with some-THING, and I use that certain thing to try to spark interaction, but Ethan is clearly more interested in the object. I don't get much response, yet he's not completely ignoring me.
I don't post this to make my son out to be a guinea pig, or to shame him in any way. Looking at stuff like this used to bother me. But now, as I see how far he's come and how much he has learned to compensate for the areas where he has trouble, I'm almost amazed when I watch (plus, if I can be biased, he's pretty darned cute!).
Maybe you have a child who is behind in speech, but who works very hard with gestures and facial expression to communicate his needs, or to get your attention. Or maybe you have a child who is off the charts in language but rarely responds to what you say or shows pleasure in engaging with you. Which is more of a red flag?
I think more than anything, the intent to communicate is more important than the actual ability, at least very early on. It's closing those circles. Like I do every morning with baby #3. Like many of us do hundreds of times each day, without even realizing.