Age 3: Floortime Occupational Therapy
My best memories of college athletics include gasping for breath and clutching my sides when my teammate Annie would tell a story. Her funny was so legendary that even the anticipation was humorous. It must have felt something like this for my son Joey, each week entering the playroom with his Occupational Therapist, the awesome Jeannette. Joey had the expectation of being delighted and entertained.
I was so jealous.
I was the mom, the one with the undeniable connection. I nurtured; I paid close attention. Why would he expect humor from me? I was tied up in knots over his delayed development and wondering if his strange eating and breathing patterns were part of his medical mystery. I was in an unwinnable race with myself to understand any form of communication he used, no matter how subtle and incomplete. What did it mean? What should I do in response? Will I reinforce the right thing? I was terrified that I would unwittingly destroy the as-of-yet-perceptible buds of communication that I hoped were growing within him.
Jeanette wasn’t terrified that she would do the wrong thing with Joey. In fact, she did what I considered the wrong thing often, and on purpose. I would drop a pointed remark or two, as she would misunderstand Joey. Eventually I found that her method was intentionally increasing his desire for sustained engagement. I realized that her misunderstandings allowed him to practice repeating what he wanted, a simple form of lengthening an interaction. She explained that the “language explosion” that happens during development only comes after the ability to engage in many back and forth exchanges — gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations — any change in response to the other person. Getting just one complete back and forth circle of communication was a major victory for us, how would we ever get many in a row? By starting slowly and by having fun.
Jeanette was able to find joy in anything Joey did, and anything he didn’t do. She expected to laugh and he took on that expectation too. I found that I wanted to be like her more than anything else I had ever wanted.
Jeanette taught me a new use for the serious and analytical part of my brain. She taught me that watching my 3-year-old touch the floor vent was not something to be mystified or embarrassed about, it was something that I could join in, and let him know how cool it was. When Joey noticed me oohing and aahing at the metal grille under my index finger, I was equally amazed, relieved, and proud. Then she taught me to playfully block him, just a little, so that it was a little harder for him to do his repetitive actions. He would move my hand out of his way, or make an utterance, and I would cheer at his interactions with me. I would wrack my brain to think up new obstructions. And over and over I would play dumb. I would ride his edge of irritation and try to make up for it with laughter. Toys would be the disruptors so we could both be mad at the plastic dinosaur or the lion puppet for interfering with our floor vent time. We practiced being sad and mad and frustrated, and shy and excited and happy and every other thing a person might feel.
I learned a lot of things from Jeanette in twelve years of therapy: how to use pacing, pitch and tone, the rhythms of advancing and retreating, when to break and how to reinitiate. The thing that was most difficult for me, by far, was how to access my funny bone. I had to put aside my fear. As I had fun with my son, so did he, and our lives were made better, no matter how slowly he developed. The pacing and sensory stuff was key too, it was just more natural for me to learn.
Thanks, Jeanette, for showing me how to enjoy what my son can do. Your modeling was everything. Joey and I owe you.