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1st RDI E-Learning: Introducing RDI

June 10, 2008

Most folks who are likely to drop by this blog knows that my daughter has “mild” Asperger’s Syndrome, and I probably have it too. Marie, who is much wiser than I, was the first to figure out that Asperger’s can be viewed as a gift. On the other hand, her life is difficult in many ways.

After several years of reading about the RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) Program for individuals on the autism spectrum, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with a terrific consultant. What a God send! We’ll start later this summer.

I am working on the online parent training for RDI. So far I’ve only completed the first chapter of the training, which offers a broad overview of basic aspects of the program. None of the information — so far — was new to me, but I was excited to get started.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not a “defect” or a “disease,” it is just a different way of thinking and relating to the world. It doesn’t need to be “cured” or “fixed.” I really don’t want to change anything about my kids; I certainly don’t want them to morph into something “normal.” (WTF is normal, anyway?) But all parents are committed to doing everything in our power to make life richer and less difficult for our kids. It’s in the job description. It is impossible to stand aside while a beloved child struggles with loneliness because she can’t make and keep friends — even after many, many efforts to help her have failed. That brings us to RDI.

In this program, we’ll be working with a trained consultant who will guide us in how we interact with Sarah and will lead us through a set of parent and child goals. There are over 900 specific goals; they want to make progress as tangible and measurable as possible.

People on the autism spectrum are believed to have less brain connectivity. While the structure of the brain is “normal,” different parts of the brain don’t communicate smoothly with one another. This makes it difficult to do certain complex things that involve focusing on various things at the same time and juggling many skills at once. The biggest challenge for my daughter, as with most kids with Asperger’s, is in social development.

Simple social interactions seem effortless to most people, but it is a bit like driving a car. While it seems easy after you’ve been at it a for a couple of years (or decades), it’s actually a complex skill. You’re negotiating the steering wheel and the gear shift, watching other drivers, judging distances, modulating your speed, and making all sorts of split second decisions. Social interactions are somewhat like that.

Imagine yourself talking with an acquaintance. You make eye contact and use other kinds of body language to show you’re interested in chatting. You “read” her reactions to what you say. Maybe you say something that makes her a bit uncomfortable (“I don’t go to church,” or, Heaven forbid, “I vote Republican.”) Or you reveal something a bit too personal (You’re just casual acquaintances, and she doesn’t really want to know that your best friend is a crack addict.) You notice she averts her eyes slightly, so you redirect the conversation. You happen upon a topic that interests her. She shows this with a tilt of the head, a slight smile and nod, or by intensifying eye contact. So you run with it. A casual conversation is actually a sophisticated dance, in which partners are constantly reading each others unspoken cues, making split second decisions, and adapting to make things run smoothly.

A person with Asperger’s has difficulty “reading” and using non-verbal forms of communication, including facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. So she relies on words — making the most of her excellent verbal skills. (Words are said to comprise less than 20% of “normal” communication). It can be nearly impossible to tell whether the listener is interested or annoyed, and you don’t know whether he’s enjoying your sense of humor, is making fun of you, or is nervously laughing because you’re thoroughly freaking him out.

This brings us to the content of Chapter 1 of the RDI training. In RDI, the consultant takes things “typical” people intuitively and unconsciously know about communication, like how to use and “read” facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice, and helps make them conscious and intentional.

It is a bit like grammar, I think. (So says the writing coach). We all use grammar intuitively before we learn to write, and we know how to speak correctly long before we are introduced to parts of speech. When we teach kids grammar, we take what they know unconsciously, through years of communicating with other members of their species, and make is conscious. The child has always known that “He are going to trade YuGiOh! cards with me” doesn’t make sense, but now he will learn formally about subject/verb agreement. He’ll take what he knows to a deliberate, conscious level, and he’ll learn the rules. This helps with the fine points of writing mechanics.

In the same way, parents of kids “on the spectrum” have always known that a certain tone of voice or facial expression means “Cool! Tell me more!” or “I’m done talking about this now” or “Uh … that’s way too much information!” or “You’re really pushing your luck, Buster!” The parent’s job is to make this unconscious knowledge conscious so she can help the child learn how to do it. In this way, the child will learn the unspoken “rules” of nonverbal communication.

In the first chapter of the RDI training, Dr. Gutstein explains that parents will learn to use one channel of communication at a time. Without words or gestures, use a facial expression. Or use a gesture alone. Or use just a tone of voice without words (“Ah. Hmmm!”) This isn’t the way “typical” people communicate. But, like any complicated skill, it needs to be broken down into parts so it can be mastered, one step at a time.

RDI used to be based on specific activities, such as games, but now the focus seems to be integrating the program into every day life. Parents coach their children in communication and relationship skills while cooking, playing basketball, building a birdhouse, or taking out the trash. It is a hands-on apprenticeship. The object is to build new pathways in the brain.

Speaking of building neural pathways, I am a devoted reader of John Elder Robison’s blog; he is the author of Look Me in The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s. He is participating in an experiment in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Apparently medical technology is used to stimulate parts of the brain and form new connections. I have been reading about this with interest, wondering what new knowledge will be gained about neuroplasticity and how this technology might eventually help people whose lives are much harder than they should be. You can read about it here and here.

Serendipitously I fell asleep thinking about RDI and the potential for forming new neural connections and enriching our kids’ lives, and I woke up to find this post on my feed reader. Check out the different video links Robison points you to and notice the differences in his facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language before and after TMS. It’s fascinating.

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