As promised in last week’s post, here’s how my family fared with ABA and Floortime.

First ABA Session:

What I expected: I would have to hold myself back while a cold, unfriendly therapist forced my screaming, crying son to sit at a table. Then, his desperate, brief escape, after which I would hold myself back again when the therapist physically placed him back at the table. And I would continue to bite my lip and let them rip my heart out of my chest because ABA is backed by a ton of scientific research, and because it was highly recommended as the best way to teach my 20-month-old how to clap and point and wave — skills he had not yet managed to learn on his own, unlike his typically-developing peers.

What actually happened: A warm and kind-hearted therapist watched me play with my son for the first few sessions in order to get to know him. What?! Wasn’t this supposed to be scary? Apparently not, when it’s done well. Although I can’t say that my son enjoyed the sessions (do you enjoy being forced to stretch yourself and perform outside of your comfort level?), this gifted therapist gave him so much support that it was almost impossible for him NOT to respond favorably. Every tiny success brought choruses of congratulations, and testimonials like “Wow, you are doing such an incredible job—I am sooooo proud of you!” I imagined that the 20th congratulatory chorus might not have the oomph of the first. But remarkably, each endorsement was even more heartfelt and genuine than the last; undimmed enthusiasm, thus no diminishing returns.

My son knew that he couldn’t clap, but this therapist told him he could, and she had more than enough confidence for both of them. Within 3 months of starting therapy, he could. Perhaps not more than once or twice in a row, and perhaps not a hundred percent of the time, but that would come. As would, a few months later, pointing and waving.

First Floortime Session:

What I expected: A warm and fuzzy therapist would immediately begin all the strategies detailed in Stanley Greenspan’s “The Child with Special Needs,” which I devoured immediately following my son’s diagnosis. She would get my son to interact more and more with the world, but never forcefully; she’d follow his lead and his natural interests. And I would be completely comfortable with this slow-and-steady pace.

What actually happened: Whenever my husband or I tried to leave our son alone with other therapists, he repeated a heart-wrenching ritual, holding onto his white safety gate and crying for us to rescue him. Not so with his first Floortime therapist: he happily spent 90 minutes straight alone with her. Wow. Something inherently different in her approach focused on pure and simple acceptance. Her only objective was to get to know him—the real boy—without any judgment, and with truckloads of patience. If he wanted to read a book seven times, she would sit there and read it with him.

Many would argue that her job was to intervene, to teach him that you ‘should’ only read a book once, but her quiet acceptance of his joys, wherever and however they existed, quickly earned his trust. He learned that she would not only allow him to be himself, she encouraged it. She celebrated the unique little person he was, with all of his unusual habits intact. This therapist was a breath of fresh air, especially at a time when everyone else, including me and my husband, were interfering with our boy’s most basic instincts. He must have wanted to swat us away like flies.

I learned that sometimes, it’s therapeutic NOT to intervene; that my son needed to know that we loved and accepted him and all the things that made him happy, regardless of whether they were socially acceptable or if they contributed to his cognitive development. Gradually, this therapist introduced toys that would help my son learn, like animal flashcards. Her slow and gentle pace yielded incredible results. Within 3 months, my son, who was previously unable to identify a single animal, could recognize animals and animal sounds, with an ease that was slightly above average for his age level. Honestly, this slow-and-steady pace is much easier to endorse after the fact. When we were living it, many sessions prompted me to second-guess my confidence in this approach and wonder, is this therapist actually doing anything?

My Family’s Bottom Line:

Both ABA and Floortime were hugely effective therapy models for my son. In fact, both theories have been incorporating more and more of each other’s strategies of late, and there is a new movement to combine them.

Our experiences with ABA and Floortime are not intended to recommend one type of therapy over another, but simply to share my family’s understanding of each one. And to the parents we know and respect who would sell a kidney to get their child a 27th weekly hour of ABA, I wish you gifted ABA therapists (of whom there are many) who treat children like the individual, complicated, mysterious, and ultimately fascinating little human beings they are.


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