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Floortime: A Treatment for Autistic Spectrum Disorders
Developed by Stanley I. Greenspan, MD

Stanley Greenspan, MD is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences and Pediatrics at the Geo. Washington University Medical School. Additionally, he is a practicing child psychiatrist, and a supervising child psychoanalyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute in Washinton DC.

Ayres’ theories of sensory integration, coupled with Greenspan’s theories give insight into the autistic mind. Greenspan says emotion organizes experience and behavior. Each sensation registered by the child also gives rise to an affect. This dual coding of experience is the key to understanding how emotions organize intellectual capacity and create a sense of self. If sensory processing is disrupted, often the emotional organization of experience will be compromised. Autism involves aberrant sensory processing. It may additionally involve a brain that has not mastered the ability to attach emotions to relevant experience. This thinking can direct a theory of treatment for autism that looks very promising.

Greenspan’s seminal thinking theorizes that emotion organizes experience and behavior. The basic unit of intelligence is the connection between a feeling (or a desire) and an action (or a symbol). Each sensation, as it is registered by the child, also gives rise to an affect or emotion. As experience accumulates, sensory impressions become increasingly tied to feelings. This dual coding of experience is the key to understanding how emotions organize intellectual capacity and create a sense of self.

We label each sensory perception by its physical properties (bright, loud, big, smooth, etc.) and by its emotional qualities (soothing, jarring, happy, tense, etc.). This double coding allows the child to "cross-reference" each memory or experience in a mental catalogue of phenomena and feelings and to reconstruct it when needed.

As an example, think of an infant being diapered by her mother. The infant with repeated experience should be feeling close to Mom. Each diapering experience joins with other experience to build an elaborate subjective description of child’s emotional and sensory worlds. Later, this emotional organization of experience guides access and by establishing meaning and relevance, supports the development of logic.

As you think of an experience, pay attention to the subjective state of your body and you will almost always perceive within it an emotional tone, though it may be elusive and difficult to describe. It is this emotional tone, in its countless variations, that we use to organize, store, retrieve and (most important) make sense of our experience.

This process theoretically provides the basis for generalization, abstraction, logic and reasoning.

We categorize experience by its sensory as well as its affective qualities. Each time we encounter a new person, e.g., this emotional rolodex we have constructed from past experience allows us to perceive the social and emotional overtones of the experience and the meaning of the event. We "instinctively" know whether to say hello or run the other way. In making such discriminations, we depend on these affective categories to function essentially as a sense organ. Sorting through emotionally coded categories where previous experiences are stored, our affective sense tells us this shady-looking character is someone to be avoided. As we register the sight, part of making sense of the experience is an immediate emotional reaction, probably preceding any cognition. Our minds then instantly retrieve other similarly coded information relevant to menacing situations and how we handled them before. Emotional reactions have been thought to be secondary to cognitive perceptions, but may in many instances be primary. Reflect on your own experience. Your perception of another’s warmth or aloofness depends more on emotion than logic. When threatened, we usually favor our emotional sensors rather than slower deductive processes.

Children who have trouble using these emotional sensors often have difficulty in judgment. They miss important information. Emotional guides to thinking can be erroneous during extreme states of anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and the like. Extreme states can distort or interfere with the ability to regulate feelings and seriously complicate learning.

We need good quality sensory information from our sensory systems to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. If sensory processing is disrupted, there is a good chance that this emotional organization of experience will be compromised. Learning and behavior can be detrimentally affected as a result.

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