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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Floortime Methodology for Relating to Children who Process Differently

Did you know that all human beings are developmentally delayed compared to the average chimpanzee? Take the average newborn, the average one year old, the average toddler: the human is behind on all  developmental milestones, as compared to the chimpanzee. The difference is just as noticeable as the difference between a neurotypical human being and one who has been diagnosed as autistic.

When Bow did not seem to be making the progress I had expected in language acquisition by the age of three, I turned to Floortime, a therapy developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, to help Bow with his language progress. The truth is that many of my volunteers were better at Floortime than I was. In my interactions with my children, I tended to follow the model set for me by my father, rather than the equally functional method of my mother.

Because I had two loving parents when I was growing up, I got the benefit of my interactions with each, which were very different. My mother was warm and loving, and she bent over backwards to read my body language and to create a bridge from my world to hers, when I was not even speaking yet. Her method was to understand what I wanted before I could say and then to give me the words to express it. You might say, she facilitated our communication by meeting me more than halfway. I attribute the fact that I was speaking words at six months and sentences when I was a year old to my mother's encouragement and her openness to my communication. She also had me potty trained at one year of age, by anticipating my needs and creating the habit before there was any time to give the matter conscious thought.

My mother was a stay-at-home mother, and she was able to do this because she was a mother full time and with me twenty-four hours a day. My early years were a time of symbiosis with my mother and learning by osmosis.

My father, on the other hand, encouraged my logical abilities by not reading body language and not talking down to me, but rather interpreting what I said like a strict constructionist. He always responded to what I said, not what I meant to say. He treated me like an equal right from the start, and his respect for my mind was evident in everything he did.

I am a single parent. I wanted to give my children the best of both worlds, but you can't have a symbiotic relationship with your child and be logical and intellectually demanding at the same time. You can't respond to what someone meant and what they actually said at the same time. You can't show empathy and demand the very highest standard of excellence all at once. Or at the very least, it is hard to do!

My early interns were warm,  normal young women with a well developed sense of empathy and a less developed sense of logic.  It was easy for them to make the high-pitched noises and the exaggerated affect that were called for in Floortime sessions. They never felt that they were talking down to Bow, because that's how they would have spoken to any very small child.  There were times when I even got vibes from them suggesting that they secretly thought I was a refrigerator mom, because of the logical, respectful way I addressed him. My relative lack of affect, compared to them, seemed like a deficit.

However, Bow and I were together all day long, and he was riding on my back, and even if I didn't quite understand him, he had developed an understanding of me. There were times when in order to reach me, he would slow himself down to my speed, and he'd wait until I noticed what he was trying to point out to me. In order to do this, he had to lower his activity level to what must have seemed like slow motion, from his own perspective.

What we eventually learned, by watching the tapes of our communication with Bow, is that he wasn't the slow one -- we were! In order to communicate with him, we needed to speed up, and he needed to slow down. But since it's easier to slow down than speed up, it was Bow who ended up doing most of the accommodating.

A primatologist friend of mine, when I asked her, had this to say about Floortime: "Yes, it does seem to help some parents to communicate with their children, but not in the way they think. It teaches them to notice what the child is saying. It doesn't really change the child."

Here's the secret to communication: if there's a mismatch in speed or communication style, each party should try to meet the other somewhere close to half-way. It doesn't matter who is the "normal" one, it's just two people, and they have to  find a place where they can reach each other. Too much attention to the norm and too little attention to the needs of the individuals involved creates an unviable channel for communication.   

It doesn't matter who is the slow one and who is too fast. The place to meet is somewhere in the middle.

I just read what I have written above to Bow. He spelled: "Why Mommy? Every mommy is good."


  1. Yes, I have used this method successfully with autistic children. It is excellent! It is similar to a method of horse training that encourages meeting the animal where it is rather than trying to pull it to where you are. Much easier to achieve "join-up" and cooperation that way! :)

  2. It does work, Suzanne, but meeting the other one where they are isn't always possible, when they are smarter and faster! So sometimes it works in surprising ways: the method also encourages them to try to meet us. Whoever is more flexible ends up doing more of the adjusting!