Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Autism & Floortime

Autism parents know floors.

I have spent many hours sitting on the kitchen floor with my son as he exercised a vocal range that Beyonce would be envious of.  I knew which tiles had cracks, which ones had stubborn marks that no amount of scrubbing could erase, and which ones warmed up quickly when the heating was switched on.  
It was pretty cathartic to finally lever those tiles off the floor a few weeks ago when my husband and I were prepping for home improvements, and I took a bit more pleasure in smashing them to pieces than I care to admit.  

My husband and I were very civilised in the aftermath of our son's diagnosis; we took turns at having breakdowns.  
I spent the first two years grieving hard, crying uncontrollably, terrified by the future and struggling to cope with the present.  James stoically cared for me, in his solid, lovely way until  the clouds parted and I started to work through my fear and loss of direction.  
Then he quietly lay down on the warm oak floor of our sitting room and didn't get up for weeks.  

There is a spot on the floor in Dunnes Stores in Dundalk that I feel a sort of ownership of, as it was Ground Zero for many supersized meltdowns.  It was on our path out of the shopping centre after we'd (usually very successfully) completed our schedule, and my boy had Just.  Had.  Enough.
So I'd sit on the floor of Dunnes while he thrashed about and performed some pretty epic vocal gymnastics, until he felt able to continue on to the car park.  
They really should have built a little bandstand there to facilitate our performances, or put up a commemorative plaque in memory of the many times we frightened hapless shoppers, but the floor was where the action was at, and that's where we stayed.

So when I became aware that there was a therapy called Floortime, I avoided it like the 1980s avoided style and understatement.  I would rather eat my own back-combed, over-processed hair (with maybe my acid pink legwarmers as a side dish) than consciously squat down on the dirt to engage in ground-level therapy.

The 1980s; The Land That Taste Forgot

Floortime was developed by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder in the 1980s and does what it says on the tin; it works by teaching parents to literally get down to their child's level, to follow the child's lead, and to draw the child into a shared world.   
It is a 'developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based model' (DIR) for working with autistic kids.  It aims to teach emotionally meaningful learning experiences for the child, and to build on healthy development rather than focusing on superficial behaviour.  
On paper it sounds like the kind of parenting we should all aspire to.  
In reality, you'd need to be Mary Poppins on Mogadon to achieve it.  Recommended therapy sessions last from two to five hours a day, and even if you had the time and money to afford it, that intense level of input would drive the most dedicated parent straight into the loving arms of their nearest off-license. If you had no other family, no job, no friends and no life, you might just be able to maintain it's demands.... but if, like most mortal parents,  your life is a circus balancing act on roller blades,  then implementing it in it's entirety is a mammoth task.

It was one of those therapies that crucified me with guilt in our early autism days.  I wasn't capable of giving it to my son, and I was filled with dread that I was failing him by not providing it.
It took a while for me to realise that when you pare back the jargon and dial down the intensity, that Floortime, in essence, is playing with your child.  Rolling a ball over and back lays the foundations of the to-and-fro of communication.  Pushing trucks in the sand gives you the opportunity to chat about colours and explore textures. Watching favourite cartoons with your child can form the basis of social stories.  

Playing with your child doesn't have to be hard, and doesn't need to be sold as a 'therapy'.  Ten minutes here and there, in between cooking dinners and doing school runs, is as much as most parents can manage.  I imagine this is more fun and productive than resentfully scheduling the rest of your family around your autistic child's therapy.   

Even though the websites selling Floortime are not shy about singing their own praises, Autism Pundit reviewed research into it and concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that it is an effective treatment for autism.  A review of available research by Mercer in 2015 found the same.  

So, lesson learned.  
I could have spared myself a lot of guilt, and learned sooner to be my son's mother, and not his therapist.


  1. This is the best yet Jean. I think this applies to every child.

    1. Ah thanks Darach. We live and learn. Thanks for dropping by! Xx

  2. You have hit the nail on the head Jean! It really is fundamental playing effectively with your child. Letting your child lead, building a relationship and developing their social skills through play is magic. A lot of these fancy interventions are based on very simple ideas which can be applied by all parents.

    Very very good article!!! Thank you!!! Xx

    1. Thank you sweetheart. I was a bit slow to learn this, but I got there in the end. I remember realising one day that anyone can train to be a therapist, but no one else can be his mother. Thanks for reading! Xx