Tucker didn’t seem to care about making friends. He didn’t play with his younger brother and seemed content to play alone, with the same toys, repeating the same movements. His favorite toy was a play barn, but he would just open and close the door over and over. His mother, Susannah, describes feeling like her son was underwater around other people. Whether you tapped him on the shoulder or spoke loudly to get his attention, he might only hear you a little bit. While he seemed happy, he wasn’t interacting with his teachers or peers.
“We were like roommates who didn’t speak the same language,” recalls Susannah. “I remember I used to just sob in the car because he would never answer my questions, and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I’d be sitting there thinking ‘how do people get their kids to talk?’ and I had so much mom guilt.”
When Tucker was four years old, Susannah brought him to a routine doctor appointment. The pediatrician recommended that Tucker get evaluated, after which he was diagnosed with Autism and referred to St. David’s Center for services. “You almost go through this really scary grief, where you don’t know what your child’s future will hold. There was a lot of fear of the unknown and about where he will end up. But I remember telling myself that nothing has changed. There’s a label now, and we can get help. And this is the same sweet kid I came in with,” says Susannah.
At St. David’s Center, Tucker received speech, occupational, and feeding therapy. But his progress was slow. Tucker’s speech therapist, Katie Patton, found it difficult to connect with him to work on his speech using traditional methods. “He would ignore me and keep doing his own scripts, in his own world. He wouldn’t include me. If I tried to join in playing with him, he would get big feelings and yell because I was not doing what he wanted me to do,” recalls Katie. That’s when she started using the Floortime approach in her sessions with Tucker. “All of a sudden he shifted and started opening up, and I thought, ‘we need to invite his parents in to do this with him!’”
One of Katie’s goals for Tucker’s speech development was for him to begin to use objects and start role-playing. Because of Floortime, Tucker no longer plays in a limited, repetitive way, as he did with the toy barn. He now uses voices for different objects and engages in imaginative play with others.
“It’s a shift in thinking to trust that if we ask him questions and we’re joining in what HE likes to do and play, he’ll make a shift and pick up language and play naturally,” describes speech therapist, Katie.” When he realized through this play-based therapy that other people could be fun to be with, a light bulb went off!” Katie recalls that Tucker used to say, “that’s too hard, I can’t do that!” But now he’ll say, “okay, I’ll try, I can do it. Did you see me do it?”
Tucker has also learned to play with his brother, Cameron, and other kids at the playground. “It’s a huge change for a parent when your kid can play. To most kids, play comes naturally. That’s a brand new skill for Tucker, which is all due to Floortime,” says Susannah. “I remember the first time Tucker started playing with his younger brother Cameron. Cam just looked at me with these big eyes, like ‘uh, ok, yeah! I’ve been waiting for years to do this with you!’”
Susannah explains that she feels like she’s finally getting to know her son because of Floortime. “I used to be so jealous of other parents who knew what their kids were thinking about and interested in. Now that he can communicate with me, I can understand how his brain works and how to connect with him.”
Tucker is starting second grade this year. He’ll be in a typical classroom, with a paraprofessional who will support him with breaks if needed during the day. While Tucker will still be receiving therapy to work on specific skills and motor functioning, thanks to Floortime, he now has the foundation he needs to learn and build relationships in school. “These are major obstacles he has overcome that I believe will set him up for success the rest of his life,” shares Susannah. “He can hear his teachers, he can make friends, he can play which allows him to learn — the sky’s the limit now.”