of towers and dinosaurs
28 September 2001
The hard part of the Floor Time approach is that it’s an ever building tower of strategies. As your child climbs the developmental ladder, mastering the emotional milestones, you need to climb the therapeutic ladder, mastering a new approach to the next set of skills he needs to learn.

We spent some time Sunday with a two and a half year old girl with light brown ringlets around her angel face, a girl with restless feet and a faraway gaze. She’s recently diagnosed, just beginning the learning curve. Dan and I both spent some time on the floor with her. It was hard getting her attention, hard keeping her focus for more than thirty seconds at a time, and nearly impossible to get her to do something intentional in response to our overtures -- well, except for turning away, which she’s extremely good at. But Dan and I both had the same feeling when we left there: "That was easy!" Because we know how to do that. We’ve been there, more or less. Damian was never quite that hard to reach, but we recognize the basic terrain and we’re still equipped to tackle those jagged cliffs. What’s hard is where Damian is now, because we don’t have the tools for that.

Where is he now? It’s hard to define. He’s learning how to carry on a conversation, learning to think abstractly, learning how to play like a kid, with imaginary scenarios that expand as his imagination grows. We’re trying to grow that imagination right now, to teach him to connect the dots. Right now he gets stuck after Point A, sometimes Point B. He dons his construction worker helmet and gets out his power tool, trots over to the cat tree, and commences tree trimming. Which is all great. Shows good imagination, right? But it never goes farther. He doesn’t pretend the tree’s about to fall down, he doesn’t put an animal in the tree to deal with, he doesn’t build a tower next to the tree. He just has the one thought and no more. A typical kid might put a bunch of dolls into an airplane and shut the door, speaking as the captain, and take off for some far off clime: "we’re going to the zoo" or "we’re going to visit Grandma" or "we’re going to the moon", and then act out that scenario too -- flying and arriving and moon-walking. That’s what we want for Damian, that kind of creativity. It’s called symbolic thinking and it’s important in all kinds of ways.

For the past few months, we’ve been stuck at Point A ourselves, not knowing how help him reach this goal. If you create or expand the scenario yourself, he just follows your lead and learns nothing except "Mommy comes up with neat stuff!" If you wait for him, nothing happens. It’s a dilemma. Fortunately, he finally got some new Floor Time therapists last week; they’re affiliated with his school and have gotten proper training. They’re very good. But they’re not enough. We need to know how to do it too. I’m learning from observing them, and I know we’ll learn more from their boss. And I just sat down last week and read the pertinent section of The Child with Special Needs. It sounds like we’ve been trying too hard, in a way. We don’t need to be wildly imaginative ourselves, we need to bolster his ability to do so in small increments. So we expand on his theme but stay carefully within the limits of that theme. Hard to explain. Hell, it’s hard to do. But I’m starting to get this. Maybe.

Damian and I had a deceptively simple play session the other night. First he pulled out the shape sorter turtle, but there’s frankly not a whole lot you can do with a toy like that. Put the four shapes in, bonk the turtle on the head, see the blocks fly. Put the four shapes in, give the turtle another concussion, enjoy the clatter of the wood blocks on the wood floor. Yawn. So I started to stack the blocks into a tower. Damian helped. Okay, one tower built. Now what? Well, what do you do with a tower of blocks? You knock it down. But we want to develop pretend scenarios. I grabbed a nearby dinosaur. "Uh oh, there’s a dinosaur coming right at the tower! What do you think he’s going to do?"

Damian knew: "He’s going to knock it over!"

We built the tower again. Dino knocked it over again. We built it again. Wouldn’t you know, Destructo Dino came right at it and boom! Over it went. Each time I had Damian do more of the building and knocking down parts and each time, we had a verbal back-and-forth about it. I thought to myself, "This is almost too basic, but what the hell, he’s having fun. Low stress Floor Time. That works." We built the tower. This time when Dino came along, Damian said "He knocks it down! The tower falls down! People are hurt!"

People. Hurt. This is a new twist.

He was obviously remembering what I told him about the Twin Towers. He knows it’s a big deal, though I’m sure (I hope) he doesn’t know just how big a deal. But something like that has an emotional impact, even on a small child. So he was incorporating it into our play scenario.

This is a step forward. He remembered. He incorporated. He added the next thought.

I took the idea and ran with it. Right over to the Fisher Price people. I grabbed a Robin Hood’s Band figure and brought it over to the tower. The poor guy lay in the rubble saying "Ow! Ow! Ow! I’m hurt!"

Damian froze. Just fell right out of the game. I asked him, "Are you upset that this little guy got hurt?"

"Ye-es," he said in the softest voice imaginable.

"Yes, I’m upset too. Poor guy. Maybe we could take him to the hospital, so he can get better." Damian perked up a little. I nudged the dinosaur closer to Damian’s hand. "I wonder who can take him. Maybe someone or some dinosaur could bring him."

Damian jumped into action. He set Hurt Guy on top of the now benign Carrier Dino.

He walked the dinosaur over to -– and I was holding my breath to see what he’d designate as the hospital -- the rocking chair’s footstool.

I don’t know how I can express the import of this. I did not tell him where to go. I did not tell him how to conjure a hospital from his -- my -- imagination. I didn’t even give him choices, though I was prepared to. The words were in my throat but they never needed to come out. He made that decision all by himself. He imagined up a hospital and it was good. Very good.

First he set the injured man under the stool. Logical enough; it does look like a house. But when I brought over the doctor’s kit so Doctor Damian could tend to his patient, Damian fished the figure out and used the stool as his examining table. First he put a band-aid on the injury, then he gave the guy a shot in the arm and readjusted the band-aid to cover the new wound.

He checked the patient over thoroughly before declaring him fit to reenter civilization.

And that was it. Not much? Everything. The first bud of spring, the first sign of a new stage of his development. Sometimes I think it’ll never come, the next step. Sometimes I’m amazed how fast he progresses. Sometimes I just give him a big hug and tell him I love him so very, very much. Sometimes he smiles at me as if to say, oh MOM, and goes back to listening to his heart with a toy stethoscope and saying "ba-bum, ba-bum" to the time of his imagined heartbeat.

Ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. Heart and head. Damian and I, both learning, both achieving our own emotional milestones step by small step, one band-aid at a time.

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copyright 2001 Tamar