In this episode, Dr. Gutstein continues to discuss the similarities and differences of typically-developing infants and those who are later diagnosed with ASD. Here he discusses what happens during the latter part of the first year when the divergence is most clear.
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The main finding that has been replicated a lot, and you will see this later, is what’s called the social passivity of these infants that go on to have autism. The social passivity really means that they are acting more like children act at 5 and 4 months. They’re not actively engaging, they’re not actively initiating if you think about a typically developing infant at a very young age. You’re really doing their passive. You’re really doing all the work of engaging, and it really changes later on.
So, one of the things I want you to keep in mind here is we are not necessarily talking about a regression. We’re not talking about the fact that these children initially lose something, or something happens that makes them function worst initially, but we are talking about the fact that they don’t develop. They maintain their more primitive way of relating when we start to look at them at that second interval, and so what the scientists are struggling with, and trying to understand now, is what’s happening between that period of time. That seems to be a very critical period. Now there may be factors before that that are influencing, but there’s something happening in the latter part of that first year that really creates a divergence between those children who are going to have ASD and those who are not, and what I want to do now is to give you some perspective from typical development to help you understand what might be happening, is that infants are born with two powerful drives, and I think most psychologists and most developmentalists would agree with this, and neuro scientists.
One I call stability maintaining, and that primarily drives behavior during an infant’s first months of life. The idea to maintain regularity, stability, so to get basic meaning in your world, you know, resolve some of the chaos around you, and especially during the first months of life. The need for regularity, whether it’s physically, whether it cognitively, is very very important, and to sort of keep things stable, you know, to maintain things rather than to be disrupted. Now, in my model and according to research, you would see this receding during the second half of the first year, but it never goes away because if you think about it any time we are under a lot of stress, or fatigue, or crisis, that stability maintain, that need to sort of just move away from change and anomaly, and incongruity, and challenge, really becomes secondary and we need to just sort of have stability, you know, and we do things actually to maintain that stability for a period of time to avoid things like that until we feel less stressed out. So, it’s still there, but hopefully it does not become prominent in our lives, especially in children’s lives.
Now when we think about growth seeking we see it first emerging during the second half of an infant’s, typically developing infants in the first year, and then henceforth we hopefully see it becoming the primary driving force. The psychologists have referred to it using terms such a mastery motivation, intrinsic motivation, and personal agency, but even though those names differ they actually refer to the same thing.
There’s a basic universal human, human specifically motivation for mental and self-growth. What we see is that typically developing infants are becoming highly motivated to actively engage to be active in their world, no longer passive. In the first months, they’re pretty passive. They can’t really use their bodies very well. I think of them as heads without bodies almost because they don’t have the motor control to affect anything, to influence anything, to explore things very well but starting the second half of the year, they get to crawl. They get to move around in psychical space, and they start to develop the ability to be able to reach to things and take them, turn things, and have some way to influencing their world. They also develop cognitively.
What we see around 7 months is that the prefrontal cortex, or what we call the front of the brain, starts activating. It’s there beforehand but we don’t really see a lot of activation until that second half of that year, and we associate that with more conscious thought with what we call mediation not to be so reactive, to be able to stop for a second and study something before you act on it.
So, infants start to become very motivated to be able to engage with their world, with their parents, with their environment, and they’re really starting to do things to enhance their own mental and self-growth. They’re not totally depending on us to do that, they’re going to explore on their own. They’re going to experiment dropping things, see how they fall. Replicating Newton’s original studies dropping different things in the world. They’re going to do that with us, they initiate those. They become initiators, they’re not just waiting or reacting to us. So they’re forming a perception of themselves as an agentic, meaning, being able to be active agents in their world, and also, they stop being interested in what’s familiar. If they already have seen it, they don’t really want to see it again. If they can do it, they don’t need to do it again. And so, this growth seeking drive, we say that it really privileges your attention, it really focuses their attention to novelty and also incongruity, meaning things that haven’t fit their meaning system. That, “Oh I haven’t seen yet,” that doesn’t make sense given my prior system of thinking. Infants are continually having to upgrade, right? Based on new things that their finding and seeing continually having to upgrade and reorganize their understanding of their world based on new information. This growth seeking seems to foster a lot of exploring, experimenting and practicing.
We see infants doing repetitive things, but repetitive things to get better at something, and once they get to certain level, they go onto something else. And also, what you see emerging is a strong desire by the end of the first year to pursue and actively seek out activities that offer the infant a degree of challenge. Not so much that it’s overwhelming but not something that’s easy. They seem to be attracted and will choose, will literally choose an activity without doing anything that is going to be moderately hard for them, and that they have some potential to fail at it initially, but they will be motivated to pursue that on their own. That seems to be an intrinsic built in motivation that doesn’t have to be learned. And they actually say by 12 months we can see infants making those choices. Appraising activities and choosing not to engage with ones that are way over, but also not to engage in activities that are too simple, and with those mastery experience, what they call mastery experiences, are critical because they are filled with rich feeling and emotion. The reason they become so powerfully reinforcing for typically developing children is they have that combination of that sort of frustration, the effort they’re putting in, the difficulty and then the triumph. It’s that big change and affect that’s so powerful on a neurological level on a psychological level. You go from “Ah this is hard,” to “Ah, we all know that, right?” It’s something we have to work very hard at when we finally achieve it has much more of positive feeling than something that comes easier to us. And infants become highly motivated for that even before the end of their first year.
Now, around the same time that infants start to be motivated to be growth seekers, parents luckily enough become motivated to become what we call growth promoters. What that means is in the first months of life, any of you of course that raise an infant know that your primary motivation is what call homeostasis or regulation, making sure the infant is fed and comfortable and not crying and is getting sleep so you can get some sleep too. You know, changing diapers and keeping away from sudden movements and loud noises, and you keeping a regulated sort of homeostatic environment for that infant. Right, keeping them somewhat feeling like the world is somewhat of a normal place. What happens though is that at around the same time that infants become motivated for growth seeking, parent’s motivation begins to change from maintaining that regulated environment to acting in ways to promote the infant’s mental growth, and even to sometimes provide challenges for them to add variation, add diversity, to add complexity, and certainly to respond to the infant’s growth seeking. So, we refer to this as growth promoting and it’s a pretty amazing thing to see when you look at that change in parents. So we see on the one hand, we see infant’s growth seeking, and we also see parent’s growth promoting. And in typical development, right, what do we see its congreble, it comes together right, it’s very nice. It’s mutually supportive, we have infant growth seeking, parent growth promoting, and what happens when it comes together is it starts a cycle, wonderful positive cycle where both parties are mutually influenced. They’re both sort of driving each other, pushing each other towards growth in a very positive way. Mental and self-growth.
So, over many engagements, remember we are talking about if you’re with a typically developing infant in your home you have scores, many many even in a course of a day, you have 50-60 little tiny engagements with that infant right where this is happening where they are developing, this very strong emotional linkage the infants are developing between their increasing personal agency little by little, becoming more of an ability to influence their world themselves, others. And your role as a parent, parental imaging process, they’re really feeling that connection of you being agents supporting their growth. And if you’re a parent you’re getting enormous positive feedback every time you promote growth promotion, almost every time because sometimes you don’t do it exactly right, but more often than not infants are going to be very excited, very encouraging to you in their facial expressions, their vocalizations, very reinforcing to you, very supportive of you and infants who are really feeling the desire to engage with their world along with you as a guide. On their own they look for new ways to involve parents in their growth seeking. So, it’s a mutual cycle if you think about it that. It keeps moving both parent and infant in the same direction, and that results in what I call the formation of a guiding relationship that both infant and parent are both invested in maintaining their ongoing engagements because they are the best way for the infant’s growth to occur.
It’s when the infant growth seeking and the parent growth promoting are synchronous and are working in unison, and are mutually reinforcing each other, we use the term guiding relationship for that, and it’s a mutual enterprise as our experts tell us. Each person’s actions and emotional reactions serve to trigger the actions and reactions of the other person, and it’s a continuous manner moving towards the child’s developing functioning, and here’s Cohen that says it’s not the child’s existing needs of competencies, or the adults framing and scaffolding, but the interaction that creates the potential, and then when more of the relationship depends on parents provision and necessary experiences the infant’s capacity to respond and the emotional tone of their interactions. Now I would say that a little bit differently because that last one assumes that as parents who are already initiating, and if you look at actual day to day typical development that’s not the case. Infants are much more involved in being the initiators of it. And what I like to use is this analogy of sort of a guided rocket launch, you’ve learned NASA, and in typical development without realizing it, and pleasantly you expect infants once they start to become 6, 7, 8 months to function as the engine thrusting, you know, supplying the energy, the lift off thrust for mental and self-growth. And if that’s happening then the word guiding makes sense. Because what guiding means then is you are taking this energy as a parent and trying to guide it, trying to use it in a way that’s most productive for that infant. But that assumes, right, that the infant is supplying the energy primarily and that allows you as guide to act with what we call the guiding system. Directing that infant’s energy in a productive way. And that’s really important because that’s what guiding is.
Guiding is not to get someone to do something, guides don’t do a lot of that initiating. They do some, but they’re mostly being responsive to this energy that’s coming, and the actions that are coming out of growth seeking. So, if you’re going to be a successful parent guide, you are very dependent on your apprentice, your infant, in this case your child, taking those growth seeking actions providing you feedback and enthusiasm. And if you watch typical development you will see that through their ongoing, infants once they get to that age in the second half of the year, they’re just constantly initiating and they’re taking actions in their world and towards you, and it means that you’re going to spend a large majority of your time in what we call a responsive manner. And that means you’re responding to their energy, responding to what their initiating, what they’re attending to, what they’re looking at. This is productive, and your job is mediate that, sometimes limit it, sometimes modify it, elaborate it, sometimes use it as a springboard for a next step, but you’re mostly in a responsive role. It’s very very important because that is such an alien concept when you think about autism. Where, and we will talk about that later, where parents lose the ability to be responsive. But you also sometimes also have to initiate, right? But even when you initiate, you’re expecting that you’re going to get feedback from that child to determine if it’s appropriate, and determine what is an appropriate one step ahead initiate goal would be, or what you should add to that activity, to that interaction, to make it growth promoting, but you have to expect you’re going to get the feedback. And another thing you depend on, whether you realize it or not, is typically you’re getting an enormous amount of enthusiasm and positive emotional response when you attempt your growth promotion as a guide. You’re just constantly getting affirmation from the infant that leads you to want to do it more and keep going. So those are things that I think we take for granted that make us successful as a parent guide.