Floortime Therapy Versus ABA Therapy

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

October 4, 2022

Floortime therapy is a relationship-based therapy for children with autism. It can promote development and interaction through play. Floortime is not the same as applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.

There are many choices for autism treatment. Every child with autism has different needs when it comes to the most appropriate therapy for them. Understanding the similarities and differences between available therapy options, as well as the evidence supporting each, will help you to find the best fit.

What Is ABA Therapy?

ABA therapy is based on the science of learning and behavior. This evidence-based approach uses positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors. ABA was developed in the 1960s by O. Ivar Lovaas. 

The goals of ABA therapy include:

  • Improved language and communication
  • Improved social skills 
  • Development of self-care skills
  • Development of motor skills
  • Improved academic skills
  • Play 

There are different teaching styles of ABA. Two of the most common teaching styles are pivotal response training (PRT) and discrete trial teaching (DTT). 

PRT relies on naturally occurring teaching opportunities to focus on pivotal areas of the child’s development. 

DTT uses one-on-one instruction to master skills through repeated practice. The method breaks skills into smaller steps to help the child learn a new skill. 

What Does ABA Therapy Look Like?

An ABA therapy session will consist of many different activities led by the instructor. The activities will usually be planned in a schedule that lets the child know exactly what to expect for the day. ABA therapy sessions usually consist of periods of more traditional “desk learning” and periods of play.

What Is Floortime Therapy?

Floortime is an intervention for children with autism or other developmental disorders. It involves therapists and caregivers interacting with a child with autism through play and other activities the child enjoys. Usually, these activities take place on the floor, which is why this therapy is known as “floortime.” 

The floortime method was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder. You may hear people refer to floortime therapy as the Greenspan Approach or DIR/Floortime. DIR stands for Developmental, Individual-differences, and Relationship-based. 

Research on the effectiveness of Floortime Therapy as an effective treatment of autism is limited.

Six Key Milestones of Floortime Therapy

There are six milestones of floortime therapy for emotional and intellectual growth. The milestones are:

  1. Self-regulation and interest in the world around them
  2. Relationship engagement 
  3. Two-way communication
  4. Complex communication
  5. Emotional ideas
  6. Emotional thinking

What Does Floortime Therapy Look Like?

Floortime for autism can take place in the home or a professional setting. Therapy sessions are usually 2 to 5 hours long. 

During a floortime play session, the parent or therapist will follow the child’s lead and participate in play or activities of the child’s choosing. 

The parent or therapist will help maintain the child’s focus and encourage back-and-forth play. This process is called “opening and closing circles of communication.”

What Is the Difference Between ABA Therapy and Floortime?

There are several similarities and differences between ABA therapy and Floortime. 

Structure

ABA is typically therapist-led. ABA sessions will be scheduled with specific skills in mind each day. For example, an ABA therapy session may specifically focus on teaching activities of daily living. 

Floortime is child-led. In a floortime session, the parent or therapist does not specifically work on speech, motor, or cognitive skills. Instead, these areas are addressed through a focus on emotional development. 

Use of Play

From the child’s perspective, a typical day of therapy can look like a day full of playtime when receiving either Floortime or ABA therapy. 

ABA therapists may guide the child in play activities as a way to teach specific skills. 

Floortime encourages interaction by the adult doing the same thing as the child. 

Setting

Both methods can be performed at home or in a clinic setting. 

Evidence for Use 

ABA has more evidence for use than the floortime model. ABA is considered an evidence-based best practice treatment by the American Psychological Association. Evidence-based means the treatments are research-based and tailored to meet individual needs by an experienced therapist.

A review of the available research on the floortime model suggests that there is not enough high-quality research available to consider the floortime model an evidence-based treatment. 

Who Provides Therapy Services?

ABA is primarily provided by professionals with advanced training in ABA therapy, who support and coach parents and caregivers on the principles used in their child’s session. A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) will have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in psychology or behavior analysis and will have passed a national certification exam. Registered behavior technicians (RBTs) receive advanced training and must pass a national certification exam and work alongside BCBAs to provide ABA therapy. 

Floortime can be provided by various providers, including parents and caregivers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and psychologists. Floortime providers can receive training through workshops and books provided by the International Council on Development and Learning.

Conclusion

There are many options available for autism therapy and it is important to understand the implications of selecting each. The best therapy should be highly individualized to the specific needs of each child and should be supported by research. 

‍Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

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