Talking / Listening

I was at the tail end of a Floortime session with a little guy I have been working with for about six months. We had managed to climb up the stairs to the living room where, fortunately, mom could not be found (once mom is found, mom's undivided attention is most vehemently required!). On the table were some books and magazines, so my little guy and I started absentmindedly poking through them. I squatted down low and he stood, looking carefully at the pictures and picking out two things: a children's Bible and a motorcycling magazine.

The children's Bible was a gift from out-of-town grandmother, who apparently was very pleased when her grandson recognized with delight some of the characters' names and begged to be read to from it. The motorcycle magazine caters to what we call his "special interests." He can play with his toy motorcycles for literally minutes at a time (this should have the effect of me saying "hours") and is particularly delighted by naming and finding the parts of the motorcycle ("the tailpipe! the handlebars!"). So there we were, in some bizarre inversion of a theme, the boy sitting calmly on my knee and the children's Bible tucked into the pages of Motorcycles Monthly.

As he flipped through the pages, I sensed him starting to float away into his head a little bit. Seeing as the goal with a lot of these kids is to convince them that the world outside their head is at least as cool than the one inside, I got to work employing techniques to rope him into conversation. The teacher in me immediately started to ask questions:

  • "Ooh... what color is that motorcycle?" - this is known as the "stupid question." And in my world, stupid questions don't get stupid answers, they just don't get any answers at all. "Playing dumb" is a great strategy when you want to see a child slowed down and planning out his actions, but it doesn't really make for stimulating conversation.

  • "Where is the tailpipe?" - so I switch to focus on his interests. The "weird question." He will gladly find all sorts of parts on his toy motorcycles, so I figured that dropping an emotionally-charged term into the mix might encourage a little interaction. I asked, he ignored. I watched his eyes to see if he even looked for the tailpipe, but no movement. He was checked in to something, I just couldn't tell what.

  • "Which motorcycle is your favorite?" - The "hard question" got no response either. "Favorite" is a very complicated, abstract concept if you really think about it... weighing factors, stratifying and grading. It's much easier to do than to talk about - if I want to know a child's faborite toy, I don't ask him, I watch him go pick it out. But for some reason it seemed like a good thing to try, and it got no response.

At this point, I did what I've been told to do - I stopped and waited. Somtimes you just stop and watch and try to pick up on what's going on inside. Everybody is a complex mystery, and it's always good to read someone's inner wonders.

He was comfortable and happy, glancing between the Bible and the motorcycle pictures. In a very rare move for him, my playmate turned his head to look up at me. He said, "He's happy!" The Bible was open to a picture of Naaman bathing in the river. I looked at the picture and tried something. I just started talking. Started talking about what was happening, started talking about how Naaman and the others in the photo felt, just started talking and didn't ask a question at all. Naaman was very sick, but then he took a bath in the water and he felt all better! Look how happy he is - his mouth is smiling, his eyes are big and bright. He's washing right there in the river!... Something about that drone took the pressure off. I could feel him relax just a little bit more and he started volunteering smiles and little comments the more I talked. Eventually mom came home and his little world started turning again.

In Floortime, you're supposed to abandon yourself to the story that the child is creating for herself. He has an idea, he has a process, we just have to make ourselves available to that imagination. But creating a story is hard, especially if you haven't mastered conceptualizing the real life world around you. It's nice when someone else makes it easy for you, does for you what you can't quite do for yourself. I hope I was able to create a landscape for him, a broad place in which he could simply place himself and be.