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Jerry Webster

Floortime - Scam or Panacea?

By November 11, 2011

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I'll probably get a bunch of snarky responses to this blog, but it does make life exciting.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to review a book published by MetSchools, ten schools in the New York City area that apply the theories of Dr. Stanley Greenspan to the educational programs of the 100 plus children in their care.   I realized I didn't know much about Floortime, except for the brief exposures I have had in reading sites for autism.  It was not a part of my program through Penn State University (currently famous for all the wrong reasons) nor my Masters of Education program at West Chester University.

It didn't help that there seem to be superlatives falling over each other in their literature:  there are "eminent speakers" at the DIR/Floortime conference this month.  Speaking about some pretty esoteric subjects, mind you.

Luckily, I'm also in the process of attempting to get my Board Certified Behavior Analyst certification through the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and had the director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Dr. Peggy Whitby, on the phone.  She suggested I look at the recent study from the National Autism Center, a National Standards Project.  The Project, which you can download and print at home, describes a very balanced and thorough methodology for evaluating research that has been published on a wide plethora of treatments, therapies and education strategies for children with autism.  Rather than ranking specific programs, the study clustered similar programs with similar premises and support.

Floortime would be clustered with the "naturalistic" approaches, which are child directed (Floortime, for sure,) in naturalistic settings and encourage social interaction and communication.   The study also ranks the specific skills deficits that the therapies/treatments/educational approaches effect positively.  The "naturalistic" approaches were ranked as "established" (enough and adequate data collected to support that an effect did in fact occur.)  The areas where a positive effect was measured?  Communications social skills, and pre-academic skills.

I spent some time reviewing other literature, and found that despite all the superlatives, Floortime looks like a really effective early intervention approach, when paired with other therapies that have shown to be effective:  Applied Behavior Analysis, Discrete Trial Training and Verbal Behavior Analysis.  Clearly, Floortime is neither a scam nor a panacea, and clearly can help do what it proports to do:  develop relational, social, and communication skills in children with serious social deficits, especially children with autism.

Of course, I do still suspect that one of the reasons Dr. Greenspan became the saint of autism is that he was an underemployed Freudian.  I was raised (in the 50's and 60's) in the shadow of talking therapy and the dance of the Ego and Id.  In those days third parties paid for people to sit on leather sofas in a therapists office for talking cures.    Now most psychiatrists focus on diagnosis and drugs.

For those of us raised in the Freudian age, the talk of relationship deficits is very appealing.  I was told once by a parent that Applied Behavior Analysis had turned their child into a robot.  I think, though, that some parents of children with autism have a romantic belief that someone else (Tchaikovsky, Matisse, et. al.) is living in their child.  But then, I think parents of typical children sometimes suffer from the same delusion.  The irony is that it was a prominent Freudian, Bruno Bettelheim, who popularized the notion that children with autism were withdrawing from controlling "refrigerator" mothers ("They said I put my son in the fridge!" says my aide Diane, with a 39 year old son with Autism.  Happy Birthday, Jason!)

So, for all you early intervention teachers, check out Floortime: it will provide strategies for getting the most out of your students' "free play" or "center" time.  For you parents of children with Autism, if your child has recently been diagnosed and is not yet school age, I'd say try to make it part of your child's treatment menu.  If you can get into a PLAY program, which provides consulting support, it might really help your child succeed.  But beware of practitioners who promise more than social, communication, play or pre-academic success.


November 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm
(1) Tracy says:

I spent many years working with children with autism. I believe Floortime is a valuable element of any therapy. It obviously cannot address many of the issues that ABA does, but should be used in conjunction with other therapies to build those social connections. It is only a scam when someone tries to convince others that it is the “only way”. I always take the best elements of any ideology and use them when they prove effective. My motto is “Whatever works!”

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