Nonverbal Autism: Circles of Communication

What is a circle of communication? The first half of the circle is an initiation (someone knocks on the door) and the second half is the response (someone else opens the door). There are all different sizes of circles. Some are big and obvious, and some are more subtle and sometimes we miss them if we’re not paying close attention.

 A big circle might be calling someone’s name and them turning around and saying “what?” A smaller circle might be when you’re playing chase and your child glances back at you to see if you’re still coming. A really subtle circle might be when you glance at your child and you see them briefly look back at you.


Circles can be really hard to count at times, but the important thing is this back and forth interaction. As we look at our world around us, it is all about these back and forth interactions with others. Relationships are based on these back and forth interactions. With some kids, this may be a difficult thing to master. They may not see a purpose in it, they may not find enjoyment in it, or they may just not know how to do it.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan introduces the functional developmental levels through DIR/Floortime. Circles of communication begin at functional developmental level 3. As we work with kids to help them progress through the functional developmental levels, it is important that we are aware of how many circles of communication they are getting. We use simple techniques to encourage more circles of communication. As the child increases the number of circles of communication they are having, they also bump up to a higher functional developmental level.

These circles do not have to be verbal circles, a kid who does not talk yet can get hundreds of back and forth circles without saying a word. How do we do it? We do it through PLAY. It is important that as children learn to increase their circles of communication that we are giving them opportunities to express themselves on their own. We can tell a kid what to do every step of the way, but how much more rich and motivating would it be if the child is giving us cues of what they want instead. We need to follow their lead.

One of the many techniques that you can use is called ‘playful obstruction.’  In many ways, that just means playing dumb. We’re all good at that, even when we don’t mean to be, right? Instead of doing all the mind reading that we tend to do, play dumb. Make the child open a few more circles to get what they want. Give them the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, make them expand, make them work.

 Just by playing dumb, you can extend the interaction. If it’s really really motivating, then expect even more. Be aware of where that breaking point is, and take them to the limits. If you lose them, that’s ok, then you know that next time you’ll pull back a little sooner.

Having these circles of communication is really important, and is a pre-requisite to having conversations, or engaging in higher levels of play. Try to count how many consecutive circles your child has a time, and try to expand on that. If there’s so many it’s hard to count, great! Instead of working on the quantity of cirlces, start to work on the quality.

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