Bridget Palmer is an Expert Training Leader in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model and speech and language therapist in Buffalo, NY. She runs a DIR/Floortime parent support group called Floortime Families which was in person but is now online during the pandemic. She has been a Floortime practitioner for more than 15 years. We met when she inquired about the online parent support drop-in that I facilitate for the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning as their parent advocate and after attending a few times, I suggested we do this podcast!
Parent Support Groups
Bridget’s support group for families started about six years ago once per month at a community center. Parents and caregivers would meet in one room with Bridget while children would be with volunteers, including teaching assistants, college students, occupational therapists, and speech and language pathologists in another room doing Floortime. Bridget called the group Floortime Families to open it up to family members including grandparents, friends and families, uncles and aunts, and siblings–anyone in the child’s life who cares about them. This year, they had to move the group to online.
Several agencies in the Buffalo community came together to find the mix of professional and student volunteers for the group. As a parent, my concern would always be my child’s welfare, so having the children nearby with responsible Floortimers would really ease my own nerves. Bridget says that those who couldn’t always make it in person have now joined since they moved online. She’s curious what format the group will take as they go forward.
The Format of the Meeting
In the ICDL group, we have a few grandparents that pop in and in general, participants not only come to ask questions, but to hear what other parents go through and how they handle their experiences. Bridget’s professional client-base is children under age five in the community. She goes into homes and daycares. Her team is often the family’s very first experience with DIR/Floortime, and therapy at all. So when they started the support group, they started offering education at the start of the meetings with a presentation and videos.
Bridget’s format now begins with her reminding them who she is, her training, experience and role, and that each meeting is confidential and a place where they can feel safe. She then invites participants to introduce themselves and say as little or much as they wish. Some families do, and some are listeners. Then they always start with a celebration. They can celebrate that their child ate, slept, reached out their hand, etc. in a place where others understand them. It allows them to come in with pride about knowing their child best.
On occasion when some would miss group, they’d even text Bridget to share their celebration. This made her aware of how important it was to start with celebrations. Bridget then always has a topic ready, but like in Floortime, they can follow the group’s lead. They often watch videos about Floortime practice, or parent testimonials, including podcasts from Affect Autism, and a video from a self-advocate to let the group know about the diverse community of self-advocates.
Bridget loves when the parents bring a topic to the group. She’ll ask if anyone has a question about something that’s been a real challenge, or about therapy, etc. and bring the topic at the end. She tries to be a listener so that parents can share with each other. I shared that I will often share resources with the group when parents ask questions, not being a clinician. I can say, “This is how I dealt with that, and this is what this person and that person said about it that might help you.“
Parents as the Experts
Bridget loves that the parents in our groups are choosing a respectful, strengths-based approach in DIR/Floortime where they are the expert in their child’s life rather than the clinician. She said that the parent support groups gives them the support to be the best parents they can be, especially when professionals try to tell them what to do. Bridget encourages parents to reply by saying, “Thank you for that information. Let me tell you about my child.” We both want to remind our parents that they have the expertise they need and we are here to support you. And that they can advocate for their child. Their gut feelings are usually right.
Sense of Community
Bridget feels pride that she can provide some sense of routine for the parents who know that she is available to them every other week. In person it was once each month. Then when Covid started, it was once per week. Now that school started back, it’s every other week. She hopes that it is a sense of comfort that they can be themselves, be honest, and share with each other. Some parents come in like sponges wanting to be all-in with Floortime, while others are getting behavioural services and feeling out Floortime. Others have just received a diagnosis and are very overwhelmed with challenging tantrums and lack of sleep and just want help.
Parenting neurodiverse children is a gift and although it may be hard for parents who struggle with challenging behaviours with high frequency to imagine, we grow into our identities. Dr. Robert Naseef talks so nicely on his blog about how he’s learned so much from his son and about humanity. Bridget hopes that being in group makes her a better therapist as well including connecting better and being a better listener, etc. The experiences that she sees in her groups is exciting. She enjoys inspiring the parent-child relationship which can be so rich. She gave the example of Temple Grandin and her mother Eustacia Cutler.
The Support for Families
In the podcast with Eunice Lee a couple weeks ago, we discussed how doing Floortime is truly a family process because we want to take into account where the parents are as well as where the child is in terms of their own individual differences and developmental capacities. That is, what dysregulates parents as well as the child? What happens in that interaction, the way that Dr. Platzman discussed last week when she has two children as her clients in the same session. We bring this into our groups as well, starting with the awareness in the parents to understand this.
Bridget wants anyone in the group be able to feel comfortable to ask questions about other therapies or anything, and she wants to be knowledgeable about what they might ask and be able to answer or at least provide resources to find out more. If they bring up therapy choices, we want to bring awareness without instilling guilt in the families because everyone wants the best for their child and does the best they can with what they know, in that moment, as Dr. Platzman and I also discussed last week and in a previous podcast.
While Bridget planned to be a speech and language therapist and work with this population, most parents do not expect and plan to parent neurodiverse children. Many parents who find our groups have only just heard about DIR/Floortime and are coming to us to learn more, since nobody has mentioned it to them before. Bridget and I are aware of the research and evidence-base for it, but many are not. Every parent brings value to the sessions and hearing stories from new parents remind the veterans about our early days. Similarly, the veteran parents offer experience and support for the new parents.
Normalizing the Experience
Another role of facilitating is allowing parents to express concerns they have and hearing what others experience. I gave the example of how I only have one child, so when our son was younger, I really had no idea what behaviours were autistic versus typical toddler behaviour. Some parents worry about repetitive, focused interests. Bridget gave the example of her husband being obsessed with the Buffalo Bills and football. But for some reason, we don’t seem to think there’s anything odd about that. He could talk about it for hours and hours. And Bridget has no interest in football!
It’s important to remind parents about human development. I shared how my son went through stages that neurotypical children go through, but at a much later age. The DIR model tells us how human development progresses and guides us along that path. Bridget says sometimes professionals working from a deficits-based model can confuse parents into thinking that our children’s behaviours need to be changed, but we instead ask, “What do you think or feel when your child does that?” and if they are comfortable saying to those professionals that they prefer a strengths-based mindset.
Bridget reminded us about Dr. Prizant’s book, Uniquely Human, where he reminds us that behaviour is human behaviour that we all exhibit, neurotypical or not. We also need to give parents that chance to be heard and share that they value a respectful, relationship-based and strengths-based approach. Parent support groups can provide this space for them to reflect on what they want for their children. Parents are the experts on their children.
Thank you to Bridget Palmer for joining us today to discuss parent support groups for caregivers and family members of neurodiverse children. If you found this helpful, informative and interesting, please consider posting it to Facebook or Twitter. Also feel free to add related comments, questions, or experiences below in the Comments section.
Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through play!