Play Therapy: Cindy Parson-Puccio '96
After college, Cindy Parson-Puccio planned to become a speech pathologist. But as she addressed issues of tongue placement and palate in an internship, she found her attention wandering.
"What I was thinking about with patients was: 'What's going on in this person's life? What's happening at home?' Just thinking so psychologically. I had a friend who was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence and she brought me there. I sat in on some classes and I loved it." Soon Parson-Puccio was enrolled in the child development graduate program.
At Sarah Lawrence, Parson-Puccio was invited to help treat a developmentally disabled child using a new therapy called "Floor Time." Also known as DIR (developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based therapy), Floor Time has proven to be one of the only effective tools for treating autism. The practice immediately clicked for Parson-Puccio, and from there, a career and a passion were born.
For the past 12 years, Parson-Puccio has worked as a play therapist in private practice. "A lot of this work is done with the parents; teaching them how to get warmth and engagement from a child who might otherwise be avoidant," she says. "When it works it is magical-indescribable."
About half of Parson-Puccio's clients are on the autistic spectrum, which puts her at the forefront of a disturbing trend. A recent California study found that the number of children diagnosed with autism had increased by nearly three hundred percent over a ten-year period.
The impact of such a diagnosis on parents is devastating. "Development might be normal for a while but then you start getting a bad feeling. Maybe your pediatrician says, 'She's only sixteen months. Give her time.' But your kid isn't really looking at you, and things start to percolate and churn. So you look up autism. Some things resonate. You wait a little bit more and then you go and get a diagnosis. And then you grieve."
It could be two weeks or two years after the diagnosis, but at some point, the parents hear about Floor Time. That's when Parson-Puccio gets a call.
"When you come in as a play therapist, you ask yourself-and I do this more now that I'm a mother-'How does the parent feel about this?' Ideally you're getting results, and the child is relating in new ways, but the flipside for the parent is, 'Why can't I do that?'"
Parson-Puccio doesn't want to be the hero; she wants to the parents to be. Luckily, play therapy can give parents an entirely different way of looking at this disorder.
"One of my kids just wanted to move a truck back and forth across the floor, and the mom was trying to stop it. I said, 'Let's actually join him.' The mother started moving the trucks back and forth, and he looked up at her, which was great, because she got some eye contact, and he was coming out of his self-absorbed world.
"Then there was this aluminum bucket in the basement playroom and I said, 'Bring the bucket over here, and this time, drop your truck into the bucket.' So he looked up at her, and then when she did it again, he did it too. Then I said, 'Run upstairs and get a spatula.'"
Within a few minutes, the three of them were making truck soup.
"They were taking turns stirring it, and I could see that he was looking at her, there was reciprocal relating. I pretended to taste it and said, 'Oh, it's so hot!' He thought this was hilarious, so he started laughing. At this point, the kid was entirely different from the way he looked when he was moving the trucks back and forth.
"That's the essence of what Floor Time is. You want to enter that child's world and join them-and then have them come into yours. Autism is a lifelong diagnosis but no matter how impaired a child is, you can still get eye contact. You can still get a smile. And if you get that, you go from there."
-Robert Anasi '89