Floor Time

aunt marylin's rainbowThe “spectrum,” as it relates to autism and Asperger’s (a disorder typified by poor social relatedness, repetitive behaviors and, often, extreme interest in a highly narrow range of topics—i.e. a kid who knows every species of spider, but little else), is a widely used term that I fear has failed to convey one of its most important meanings:  that all social relatedness falls along a “spectrum” ranging from Rainman at the extreme “leave me alone” side to Paris Hilton and Britney on the “never leave me alone” side.  If we put the far ends together we have a big Hollywood movie (autistic card counter, Dustin Hoffman, and slick hustler, Tom Cruise, hit Vegas); if we try to parent either one of the extremes we’re in for challenges.  And if we are parenting somewhere in the middle, we can still learn a few things from “spectrum” kids and some different ways of thinking about differences in general.

The notion of the “spectrum” also means that we all have our innate wiring that highly determines how much we resemble a party planner versus a recluse.  With “spectrum disorders” we are talking about those who don’t relate much to others not because the world has hurt their feelings (nurture), but because it is their very nature not to respond and “care” the way so-called “normal” people do.

Given that “oddness” is socially determined (i.e. the powerful people in the group get to define “normal”), if we had autistic leaders and power-brokers, for all we know there would be “social skills group” focused on helping people turn inward and not need to be looking everyone in the eye and inter-relating so much.  As it stands, autistic kids (if they get treatment) are generally assisted in making strides toward joining the group and behaving a little more like the rest of us.  While this is important, and has proven effective (especially if interventions come early), another thing to think about is why evolutionary biology would produce, and maintain, “spectrum disorders” in the first place, and why they seem to be on the rise in our increasingly “interconnected” world, given how “spectrum” disorders are all about NOT being interconnected (at least in the ways most of us recognize, such as talking to each other, socializing, copying other people’s manners and styles).

Just like we all have both light and dark sides, and masculine and a feminine sides, we also all have introverted and extroverted sides.  Somewhere within us lies an inner Rainman, and an inner Paris Hilton.  It serves us as a culture to consider what spectrum kids might be “telling” us with their apparent lack of wanting to tell us anything at all.

One of the key aspects for parents, when caring for and trying to socialize spectrum kids is what Dr. Estie Hess calls “floor time,” a term coined by her mentor and teacher Dr. Stanley Greenspan.  Floor time capitalizes on what Greenspan discovered to be a critical relationship between social/emotional interaction in a child and his or her sensory and cognitive functioning; in other words, kids need to feel and interact in order to be able to use their brains to map and organize their world and then be able to deal with the noises, smells and physical sensations that seem to come at them without causing them to mentally run for the hills due to overload and overwhelm.

When there is impaired (or at least different from the norm) neurobiology, a positive relationship between parent and child can make all the difference; ah, but there’s the rub… these are kids who are extremely hard to engage; they do not gratify the parent and are at risk of being given up on and left under-stimulated when they need someone to hang in there and lead them out of the cave (or, perhaps, I sometimes think, we should all join them in the cave and see if they’re not onto something we’re missing).

Floor time’s success hinges on casting the parent as play partner to the special needs child, and helping that parent align with the specific developmental level of that child.  By managing to make connection, the connecting part of the brain is strengthened which, over time, makes some semblance of “normal” connecting increasingly possible. 

If walking in someone’s shoes is a way of gaining empathy, literally getting down on the floor and following the lead of a child, encourages interaction and helps deepen engagement (even if a child tends to avoid this because it carries emotional intensity).  A prime task for the parent is to learn to catch, and hold, the spark of life-spirit in their child’s eye.  Sometimes a parent needs to playfully block a child’s play (i.e. block the route of their toy truck), forcing the child to interact by confronting the obstacle.  The parent makes use of the different senses to broaden the child’s experience and help link their input together (i.e. making the sounds of the truck as the child plays, making visual contact and affectionate physical contact).

It is key for the parent to realize that a given child’s avoidance may be due to feeling swamped, and NOT to oppositionality or rejection; in other words, it’s key for the parent to stay engaged and not take unpleasantness personally.  Floor time is a complex and dimensional technique used with an array of special needs, and if you have a special needs child you might like to learn more about it (see her website: www.drhessautism.com or click on the link “autism” on my blogroll).

For those parenting non-special needs kids, we might deepen our empathy for what these parents are up against—and send love instead of judgment since maybe somewhere in their own unseen and unconsciously held “spectrum brains” they will actually receive the love and it will benefit their children (that’s the intention and point of this blog anyway: supporting parents in the service of all children).  Thus, if you’ve read to this point, and have no special needs kid of your own, Thank You.  Maybe it will help someone else, perhaps it will help you find more of a “floor time” attitude with your own non-special needs, yet nevertheless often challenging, child (or with your own inner Rainman or Rainwoman).

So, let’s hit the floor in honor of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Floor Time”

  1. Esther Hess, Ph.D. Says:

    Bruce,
    Lovely article. Thank you for both thinking of me and of course, for our friendship. Best, Estie

  2. A.N. Says:

    Thank you Bruce for stimulating and great thoughts.

    I also am wondering if our children being so sensitive (tuned in), or silent to external relationships (as autistic children are) are key to guiding us towards that place within ourselves where the great potential can unfold: away from seeing others, the world and ourselves through the tiny compartments of familiarity (or the reference), stacking and sorting all of the experience and our relationships like a toddler stacks her building blocks that keep on falling down.

    Maybe our special ones are showing us that the stillness or the space (between each thought) is the source from which we treat each other, from which we guide our children and let ourselves be guided by their sacred authenticity, and has not been visited by many lately and that every one of us, as Bruce pointed out, might find a whole new ways and worlds if we are able to leave our protective shells of familiarity behind and implement some “floor time”(or whatever that is for each person) into our lives and find out what happens than.

    There is an artist called Bill Viola who made a video art of two screaming heads where you can not hear the sound, just see everything that’s happening included the sound’s volume scale for each screaming face (he employed professional screamers like opera singers and voice actors….any regular mortal would destroy it’s vocal cords screaming that loud and long ) . He also has another “picture in motion” installation, in which two woman (and the third one joins later) great each other and the gestures are slowed down to many many minutes (what in real time takes couple of seconds). His art dares you out of the preconceived notions and into the space of a new/ancient possibility.

  3. Jonam Says:

    ya, it great article

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