Functional, Emotional, Developmental Capacities (FEDCs)*

The following chart from Engaging Autism, describes the six core emotional developmental capacities that each child develops as they mature. Developed by Stanley Greenspan, M.D. and Serena Wieder, PhD, these levels describe a child’s ability to relate, communicate, and find joy with others.  At times, some children have difficulty progressing through these six stages naturally.  Some of these reasons include challenges with sensory processing, motor planning, language processing, and cognitive abilities.  Understanding which developmental capacities a child is challenged by will help to support the child appropriately and facilitate success in the future.

Capacity 1:  Shared Attention & Regulation (begins at 0-3 months)†

The first developmental skill is the ability to be calm and regulated and at the same time interested and engaged in the world. This skill allows a child to take-in all the exciting things going on in the environment through the various senses, organize them internally and simultaneously focus on particular stimuli while ignoring other things. It is the ability to focus on the face of mommy, or touch a particular toy without losing control that leads to a sense of internal security. As sensations are exchanged between you and your child, emotions of pleasure and joy emerge, leading to greater engagement and the second developmental stage.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 1*:

Lack of sustained attention to different sights and sounds

Capacity 2:  Engagement & Relating (begins at 2-5 months)†

Critical to all childhood and adult relationships is the ability to relate to others in a warm, trusting, and intimate manner. Normally, this skill is in full swing by 4 to 6 months of age when a child smiles back at a parent in a special way or later as a toddler when she enthusiastically shares her toys or gives hugs to other kids. The ability to relate to others in a warm and intimate manner is a process that continues to evolve throughout childhood and develops even more within the context of romantic relationships.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 2*:

No engagement or only fleeting expressions of joy, rather than robust, sustained engagement

Capacity 3:  Purposeful Emotional Interactions†

(begins at 4-10 months)

Developing the capacity to focus and relate to others allows children to begin communicating with willful intention through facial expressions, gestures, and body language. By 18 months of age, many children are quite good at reading nonverbal cues and engaging in the most rudimentary forms of communication. A smile leads to a smile, pointing results in obtaining an object, and crying brings on attention and comfort. It is through learning to read others nonverbal language that we learn to differentiate emotions in other people and how to send and receive nonverbal messages that establish our personal boundaries. Children and adults who never master skills at this stage struggle in school, work, and in friendships because they are still learning to read nonverbal cues from others and figure out what a person is really saying.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 3*:

No interactions or only brief back-and-forth interactions with little initiative (i.e. mostly responding)

Capacity 4:  Behavioral Organization & Problem-Solving†

(begins at 10-18 months)

At this capacity, children 14 to 18 months of age are successful at getting what they want and begin to develop more advanced skills in relating to others and building an internal sense of who they are. In the beginning, a child’s sense of self is like a map with most areas still blank. The earlier developmental capacities provide some essential outlines on the map, but the details get filled in as a child engages in more and more complex interactions with other people. As such reciprocal interactions grow in richness and complexity (and number); a child begins to discern patterns of behavior, both in him and others. Areas of the map begin to get filled in and children begin to solve problems with the help of others.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 4*:

Inability to initiate and sustain many consecutive back-and-forth social interactions

Capacity 5:  Creating Ideas†

(begins at 18-30 months)

As children master the ability to engage others with intention through their emotions and behaviors, they move on to the fifth capacity of development that involves learning to form mental pictures or images of their wants, needs, and emotions. This is the capacity of symbolic expression where a child can substitute a thought or an idea for an action or behavior. Instead of throwing an object in anger, a child can now say “I am angry.” Children (and many adults) who never fully master the skills of this capacity, have difficulty identifying what they are feeling and instead simply act-out feelings in actions and behaviors. Parents can help children negotiate this capacity by modeling appropriate expression of emotions in both words and nonverbal behavior.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 5*:

No words, or rote use of words (e.g., mostly repeats what is heard)

Capacity 6:  Emotional & Logical Thinking†

(begins at 30-42 months)

The final developmental capacity usually begins when a child is between three and four years of age, and involves taking the mental images from the previous stage and building bridges between them. Now, a child can go beyond simply labeling emotions and connect them to external events or other internal images or ideas. “I feel sad because daddy cannot take me to the zoo” or “I feel angry because mommy won’t let me play with my toy trains” are examples of feelings now connected to different categories of ideas.  The capacities to reflect on future behavior, feel empathy for others, and realize that actions can have consequences, all require mastery of the skills of emotional thinking. Parents play an important role in helping children at this stage to the extent that they themselves have such abilities.

Core Deficits of ASD in stage 6*:

No words, or memorized scripts, coupled with seemingly random, rather than logical, use of ideas

*Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, Engaging Autism (Da Capo Press, 2006), 30.

† Stanley Greenspan’s Six Developmental Levels (Stages) of the Mind. (n.d.). Retrieved from