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Beginning RDI with a Teen

November 1, 2008

I am a novice with RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) with my 14-year-old Aspergian daughter. We started the RDA, and working on my first parent objective with our coach, this summer. We are now 2/3s of the way through the RDA: the initial assessment and goal-setting process. I expect that this will be the first in a series of posts where I can synthesize what I’ve accomplished so far and where I’m still struggling.

RDI is a cognitive and social program that strives to recreate the developmental experiences “typical” kids receive in the first few years of life. For example, a “neurotypical” baby learns to “read” a parent’s facial expressions very quickly. When doing something a little scary, like crawling close to the edge of a table, she learns to look at her mom’s face. Does Mom look relaxed or frightened? Is what I’m doing safe? Should I continue? No one teaches her to do this, it’s just part of her unfolding nature — like a baby bird learning to fly.

Children on the autism spectrum do not fully develop these abilities. They do not absorb them as naturally and intuitively as “NT” kids do; they have to be taught in a purposeful way. RDI seeks to do this — at ANY age. You may have been told it’s “too late” for a child to master these skills at 5 … or 10 … or 15 … or 20, but research does not support that. Our brains continue to grow and change throughout life. Don’t let anyone tell you different. 🙂 There is even some evidence that people on the autism spectrum have greater neuroplasticity than “neurotypicals.”

My 14-year-old daughter Sarah is bright, loving and empathetic, but she has great difficulty forming relationships. Making and keeping friends, or even friendly acquaintances, is an ongoing challenge. I’ll try to explain at least one dimension of why this has happened, and how it relates to the core objectives of RDI. I often feel that I have a lot of knowledge (I guess I should, having been a student of autism “disorders” for 9 years, since this diagnosis was first proposed for Sarah.) But I have trouble applying that knowledge. So for my own benefit, I’m going to keep it simple.

Imagine yourself having a conversation with an acquaintance — a friendly fellow mom — over coffee. Suppose you’re talking about your toddler’s toileting issues. 🙂 (C’mon, we moms sometimes like to dish about poop.) Your friend’s facial expression tells you “GAWD, that’s WAYYYY too much information!” or “Could she be any more boring?” or “Yes! I can SO relate. Tell me more.” You “read” these expressions and adjust your side of the conversation — you share more, you share less, or you change the subject. This face-reading, adapting, and balancing goes on every minute in almost every conversation you have. No one taught you to do it. (I’m writing this assuming you’re a member of that odd breed known as “neurotypical.” *LOL!*) Most of the time, you’re not even aware you’re doing it. But a casual conversation is actually a sophisticated dance, in which you co-regulate your movements with your partner.

Think about the dating and courtship game. I have strong Asperger’s shadow traits, and all I can say is that I’m lucky God led me to find a compatible mate EARLY, and we married young, because I wouldn’t have survived in the dating game very long! 😀 Trying to interpret all those nuances and body language — “he thinks I’m ‘hot,'” “he finds me boring,” “he might ask me out,” “he doesn’t like me that much, but he wants to see if I’ll be an easy ‘score.'” Then using words, facial expressions, and body language in a way that’s in sync with his or communicates interest or lack thereof. I think I’d rather write a freakin’ doctoral dissertation than go through all that again. 🙂

Now … parents of kids with Asperger’s will be able to relate to this. When Sarah interacts with other people, talking, making eye contact, and trying to pay attention to facial expressions (which she often can’t “read”) — all at once — it is akin to trying to ride a bike while juggling. She loves to talk, and often monologues about her particular interests. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Right now, movie adaptations of musicals are big — especially Sweeney Todd. 🙂 Go figure.

She realizes that she tends to hold forth on her own interests way beyond the point where others have lost interest. She really cares about finding topics of mutual interest. But she can’t co-regulate the conversation. She can ask “What do you want to talk about.” (People always say “I don’t know.”) That’s a good start.

But to co-regulate a conversation in a natural, comfortable way, you don’t ask. You pause, you wait. Maybe you float a conversational topic (“So, have you ALWAYS home schooled your kids?”) watching the person’s face and body language to see if she’s really interested and engaged or if she’s just answering your question to be polite. If she’s not engaged, you might change the subject, or you might say, “Well, it was nice meeting you!” and move on. When a person is listening to you talk about your favorite subject (say you’re talking about your adorable, unbelievably precocious, brilliant child 🙂 ), you read the signs to see if the listener is still interested. Accordingly you keep talking, stop, or shift the conversation in another direction.

One of my eventual goals is for Sarah to be able to do this — co-regulate a conversation — so it is a natural, fluid process. We want to help her develop these subtle, complicated skills and gain CONFIDENCE in her ability to connect with people. This sows the seeds for genuine, lasting friendship and eventually — **GULP** — dating and intimacy.

Our RDI journey started with a parent goal — for me to be able to co-regulate interactions with my child so I can guide her. It all has to start with me building my skills. Even parents who have no autistic traits themselves have to do this, according to RDI thinking, because your interactions with your child — over time — have been shaped by his autistic traits and his challenges.

Co-regulation involves doing something together, so that you’re in sync. A simple example of co-regulation is a parent and child throwing a ball back and forth. You have to be in sync with Dad to see when he’s about to throw the ball and to get some clues as to where he’s throwing and how hard. And this synchronicity has to continue … back and forth, again and again.

Working on co-regulation typically involves doing hands-on activities with the child, coaching her in a way that is directive without being didactic or authoritative. This is called Guided Participation.

These are some guidelines for co-regulation and fostering dynamic communication (I’ve posted these before):

1. Clear Roles: The parent chooses a meaningful role for the child. The child needs to know what her role is so when we do things together, so we can collaborate smoothly. For example, when we made scalloped potatoes, I handed Sarah a potato peeler and said “I’ll cut up the potatoes after they’re peeled.” Then she peeled and I diced. On another occasion, I handed her the shopping list, in Wal-Monster, and said “I’ll push the cart.” I drove and she selected the items we need.

This lays the groundwork for my not continually giving instructions (here, you peel this … cut this … put this there … hand me a loaf of bread … now choose some cereal …) She knows what her role is, and she thinks for herself, deciding “what comes next?” This helps build thinking skills. It also lays the groundwork for natural, fluid conversations. The skills Sarah uses when she assumes her role and coordinates her actions with me reflect the skills she’ll use to have smooth, mutually satisfying conversations. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for gratifying relationships.

2. Co-Participation: You’re not instructing. You’re doing things with the child, modeling, and demonstrating. However, there is a clear guide and an apprentice.

3. Shared Attention: Direct the child’s attention, not her behavior.

4. The Goal of Co-Regulation is for the apprentice to stay coordinated and synchronized with her partner.

5. Dynamic Thinking: Through co-regulation, the guide is teaching the child how to think, about meaning, what is important/not important, and how to make decisions.

6. Communication: It provides opportunities for dialog —

a. The guide uses broadband communication — using facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice as well as language. Often, the less verbal the better.

b. The guide uses mostly declarative language (making statements) rather than imperative language (requests, commands and questions) For example, I direct her attention to a problem (“this fork doesn’t work very well stirring the cookie dough”) instead of making a direct request (“please go get me a large spoon.”) Again, the child is doing more thinking and responding instead of just waiting for her marching orders.

7. Working in the Zone of Proximal Development: Teaching should be challenged based: evaluate competency and present challenges just beyond that ability, progressively requiring more responsibility.

In RDI, you typically videotape shared interactions with your child — while focusing on specific skills you’re trying to develop — and review them with your consultant, who offers feedback and suggestions.

These are things I’ve worked on in our videos:

1. Setting Up Roles: To begin, handed Sarah a dish cloth and said “I’ll wash.” This let her know that her job was to dry. In RDI, we tend to use declarative language (“I’ll wash”) rather than imperative language (“dry the dishes.”) She picked up on this right away, of course. I set up roles for the next stage of the activity by having her wash apples while I dried them; this time I was explicitly verbal (“Do you want to be the washer this time?”)

2. Trying to Limit Language: I am working on talking less and encouraging Sarah to talk less. This is important with Aspergian kids, because they tend to use their high verbal ability to compensate for difficulties in other areas — such as the nuances of give and take communication and using and “reading” body language. We need to talk less to leave room for other kinds of communication — like non-verbal communication — because this will set the stage for helping them learn these skills. While taping, we had music in the background and talked a lot less than we usually do. When she started talking about something that she tends to focus on a LOT, I downplayed it and redirected her to the activity at hand.

3. Using More Broadband Communication: I am trying to limit verbal communication and use more facial expressions, gestures, and other non-verbal prompts. For example, I prompted her to dry a cookie sheet by looking at it and handing her a towel.

4. Trying to Keep the Focus on the Interaction Rather than on Just Getting It Done: At one point, I realized we were becoming more focused on getting the job done than on the shared interaction. So I slowed down, washing one dish at a time and handing it to her before moving on to the next.

5. Allowing More Processing Time: I handed her the bag of nuts and a bowl and waited for her to dip the caramel apples into the bowl of nuts. We paused. She seemed a little confused. My inclination has always been to jump in and explain what to do next. But I am getting better at waiting and giving her extra time to process my non-verbal prompts.

Comments: I am becoming much more comfortable with framing roles. I also think I am getting much better at controlling for distractions (by throwing the other kids out of the room while where “doing RDI” *LOL!* and by limiting conversation a bit) and at slowing down and allowing Sarah more time to process my prompts. I am not doing this perfectly, by any means, but I see a lot of improvement. I still struggle with using verbal vs. non-verbal communication, but this gets easier as I get more comfortable with slowing down and allowing more processing time.

A Few of the Consultant’s Suggestions: When Sarah has displayed competence, increase the level of challenge. Once we have a pattern established — like handing the dishes to each other — throw a bit of challenge her way. For example, I could hand her a dirty dish “accidentally.” Or when she is handing me apples, move just out of reach and indicate that she should toss it to me.

Use language to highlight the elements of “discovery” within the activity. Will the caramel sheet cover this giant apple? Seize opportunities to say things like “Hmmm, I wonder what will happen if. …” or “Let’s see. …” These creates periods where there is a “joining of the minds,” where parent and child are thinking about the same thing and working toward solving the same problem. This is really the heart of co-regulation, isn’t it?

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