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Five Ways the Floortime Approach Benefits Kids with Autism

Floortime can be a life-changing approach for kids with autism and their families. Through Floortime, we encourage and support the child, but at the same time, challenge him to become a creative, flexible, independent thinker. Learning the Floortime approach changed me. It changed my way of thinking, it changed the way I interacted, it changed my entire view of children with autism. If you work with children with autism, I highly recommend the Floortime approach, and here's why.

"All children have within them the potential to be great kids. It's our job to create a great world where this potential can flourish."

 - Dr. Stanley Greenpan, creator of the Floortime approach 

1. Floortime emphasizes the importance of intrinsic motivation.

Say one of the child’s goals in therapy is to improve his eye contact. Many approaches would use external reinforcers to improve this skill, such as verbal praise like saying “good job”, or using a reward system (after you do this, you will get a break, or you will get to play with a toy for 5 minutes). Floortime differs because it focuses on the importance of intrinsic motivation. You don’t want the child to look at you because you willI say “good eye contact” or because he will get to play with a preferred toy. You want him to look at you in the eye because you’re funny, because it’s fun to interact with you, because he finds comfort in you, because it makes him feel good inside…the bottom line is, that looking at you in the eyes makes him feel connected to you. You want that to be the motivation for the interaction.

2. Floortime teaches flexibility and problem solving.

Many children with autism have significant issues with being flexible. They tend to show rigidity across many areas, including their language, play, behaviors, and overall way of thinking. I often see, that when it comes to solving a problem, it seems like many kids on the spectrum have tunnel vision - they can only see one solution. Our goal is to turn them into flexible thinkers, so that when they come across a problem and one solution doesn’t work, they can generate other solutions to solve the problem. Say a child is grocery shopping with his mom and he is so excited to go to pick up some frozen chicken nuggets. When they get the store, they are out of chicken nuggets. What a disaster! Cue the screaming and crying. But if we teach flexible thinking, the child is able to come up with alternative solutions. Can they go to another store? Can they swing by the drive-thru on the way home? Can they go back to the store tomorrow to see if there are more in stock? But many kids on the spectrum don’t have the skill to be presented with a problem and immediately come up with 3 ways to solve it. Flexibility is a tremendously important part of social-emotional development.

3. Floortime factors in the importance of a regulated sensory system.

You know when you’re in a long lecture, and you feel like you’re about to fall asleep? Without even thinking about it, you probably raise your heel off the floor and start bouncing your leg. Why does that happen? Because your body knows how to regulate itself. It knows, that if you continue to sit still, you might actually fall asleep in the middle of the lecture. For kids on the spectrum, often times their bodies don’t have the ability to regulate themselves. When they are on the verge on disregulation, they have trouble catching it, and being able to come up with a way to keep calm. The reason this is significant, is because the best time to learn language is when the body is regulated. If a child is constantly becoming disregulated, it is interrupting the child’s ability to communicate and learn. The Floortime approach emphasizes that self-regulation is a foundational skill in social-emotional development. We need to determine a child’s sensory preferences, so that we can use sensory strategies to help the child maintain a state of regulation.

4. The Floortime approach teaches the foundational skills needed for successful communication and interaction.

Self-regulation is not the only foundational skill needed for successful interaction. In order for a child to become a truly independent thinker, he also must have joint attention and be engaged. You might see some therapists who meet a child with limited language, and immediately start working on getting the child to talk. But often times, self-regulation and engagement, which are foundational skills needed for communication, are overlooked. A child who is not regulated and not fully engaged might be able to learn memorized phrases, but unless we can strengthen the child’s ability to be regulated and engaged, that child will not be able to use language and interact in a meaningful, flexible way.

"That's our goal of entering their shared world - to help them to be empathetic, creative, logical, reflective individuals."

- Dr. Stanley Greenspan

5. Floortime helps children at all levels improve their social and emotional development.

Floortime is not just for nonverbal children, or children who are working on only higher level social skills. It is for all children, no matter where they are on the spectrum. In Floortime, we address foundational skills such as eye contact, engagement, joint attention, and regulation. But we can also address higher level skills such as abstract thinking, problem solving, back and forth interaction, pretend play, telling stories, and conversation. The Floortime approach is a comprehensive framework for addressing the whole child, no matter the child.

If you are a therapist wondering how to get started with evaluating kids on the spectrum using a Floortime approach, I have the perfect tool for you...try my FREE Floortime Assessment Checklist. Just click on the link to get the free download!

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is the owner and Director of Clinical Services of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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