Floortime is a revolutionary technique for helping children with developmental challenges.
The Floortime method tries to find ways for children to connect with the rest of the world while retaining their uniqueness and developing at their pace.
Turning disability into do-ability
At birth, Lucio was cortically blind. Doctors said he wouldn’t walk, his blindness couldn’t be cured, and he would unlikely live past his teens. Today, although severely autistic, Lucio is a healthy, happy 13 year old. He has near-perfect vision. He can walk largely unassisted and he can communicate his needs to his parents.
When he was 17 months, his mother, based in Amsterdam, took him to a developmental educationalist using the increasingly popular and successful DIR (the Developmental Individual difference Relationship-based model) technique. Also known as “Floortime” the technique centres around interactions with the children, mostly on the floor in their preferred space.
Developed by American child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan and psychologist Serena Wieder in the late 1980s, DIR sought to replace more restrictive child-development techniques with one based on celebrating each child’s uniqueness and concentrating on their quality of life.
“Floortime pulls together the best of OT, psychology and speech therapy,” says occupational therapist Kerry Wallace. It is built around three pillars – Developmental, Individual difference and Relationships – and is client directed. A therapist assesses the child’s emotional stages of development, takes their individual processing differences into consideration, and encourages involvement from those central in the child’s life, says Wallace.
Focused on interaction
Floortime defines children’s developmental goals not by general societal standard, but rather by what they are capable of achieving at their level. This philosophy filters into the interaction with each child, with adults meeting them at this level. “People tend to do things for children with challenges. What Floortime encourages is to do things with the child,” says South African-born Marius De Vos, who started his own school for autistic children in Amsterdam before recently moving back to South Africa.
He points out that historically, children with disabilities have suffered from the drive towards normalisation. “Floortime tries to find ways for children to connect with the rest of the world,” he explains. “We look at the child and see what their next developmental step is. Then we work towards that. The idea is to approach children in terms of what they can do. Everybody can do something. That’s what you latch onto and where you try to meet them,” he says.
Coaching and parental involvement
“Floortime is also a coaching model,” says Wallace. “We teach parents or caregivers how to work with, understand, and better deal with their child.”
Floortime can be tailored to specific underlying sensory processing, motor and learning challenges as well as family and cultural factors, says Wallace. And, if parents are involved, the model “can work anywhere for the child, and the parents’ newly found expertise can be used from different angles,” she explains.
The model provides a roadmap for the treatment of developmental, learning and emotional challenges and diagnoses. It can be used with children who are anxious, have attention difficulties, language delays, learning challenges, and sensory processing, autism or Asperger’s disorders.
“It’s also a very flexible process,” says Wallace. “We meet the family, work with them, find out their needs and formulate a way forward.”
Read here for coping strategies and techniques for children with special needs
Seeing South African results
After De Vos returned to South Africa, he and a physiotherapist trained in Floortime spent a week at the Aurora Special Needs Centre, training staff in Floortime. One year later, staff members noted significant development in children who had previously eschewed any sort of interaction.
Irma Jacobsz, a teacher at the centre, explains the changes in six-year-old Melanie*. “She was very into herself,” playing in front of the mirror. “For us, it was a matter of not knowing how to teach her.” After 15 minutes with De Vos, Melanie was interacting with him as he mimicked her behaviour.
Melanie has continued to improve as teachers have persevered with Floortime methods. During a class sing-along, Melanie began interacting, holding up her hands to clap with the teacher – a remarkable action for a child with autistic traits, says Jacobsz.
* Name has been changed
Find out about schooling options for the special needs child
Training and affiliation
The Profectum Foundation offers online Floortime training to professionals and parents. Polka Spot’s NPO, Spotlight Trust SA, is the Profectum affiliate in South Africa. Their aim is to train people and ultimately make Floortime culturally relevant in South Africa.
- Autistic-like: Graham’s Story – a film by Erik Linthorst
- Building Healthy Minds by Stanley Greenspan (1999).
- A Tale of Two Schools by Claudia Wallis (Time magazine May 2006)
Brian Hayward and Cassandra Shaw