I put blogging Awakening Children's Minds by Dr. Laura Berk on hold and am raring to go. I can see the light at the end of Chapter 2, but I need to weave a few more dangling threads into my mind before moving onto the next chapter. If you have not been following these posts, I listed them in order of thought flow in the Topical Index in the sidebar on the right. Most consultants recommend this book for parents learning about RDI. If you have no clue about what RDI is, one consultant in training put together a handy FAQ and resource list to enlighten you!
In Chapter 2, Laura Berk points out that typical young children are born ready to narrate. They pick up nonverbal communication from their parents through making faces, back and forth interactions, lap games, etc. Before they can talk, they observe their parents' actions and imitate them. Once verbal, they reproduce steps explained and modeled by parents by doing and narrating their activities in short phrases. Once they master observing, acting out, and narrating events in sequence, they start borrowing their parents' assessment of emotion and internal motivations and apply it to their own narrations. Then, they start detecting unusual events that stand out against the backdrop of common routine things. Through daily activities and dialogues with children, parents foster development of these skills.
An example of this would be a child watching her mother load the washing machine. The little one puts clothes in a basket one by one and pretends to add the soap and push some buttons. In time, she would repeat her mother's explanations, "Dirty clothes. Getted soap. Goed on." Later, she reflects that she feels better after a bath, so the clothes must feel better too after their bath. One day, the load in the washing machine becomes unbalanced and begins kick-boxing. Her eyes widen in fear until her calm mother explains that the clothes need to be moved around until all is right. When her daddy comes home, she describes how the washing machine got in a bad mood, and mother cheered it up.
Laura Berk and Charlotte Mason had similar views of children and narration. Laura wrote, "We arrange events in logical, sequential events in logical, sequential order, and we focus on explaining unusual, hard-to-interpret occurrences, often by dwelling on characters' intentions and perspectives. Even before they begin to talk, children display a readiness to participate in narrative (page 53)." Charlotte Mason recognized this readiness to narrate, too:
Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child's mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. 'Let him narrate'; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education (page 231).Autism and the Building Blocks of Narration
One can imagine why young autistic children fall off this developmental path. They tend to focus their attention on predictable objects rather than confusing people. Because they spend very little time studying their parent's faces, they do not know how to interpret facial expressions and body language. When something usual happens, they are not comforted by their parent's reassuring face. They have difficulty shifting attention quickly, so that, if they do turn to their parents for comfort, they would already be too upset to notice. They find it easier to focus on an object than to follow a sequence of actions, which requires rapid shifting of attention.
While they pick up sequencing cause-and-effect in objects like spinning a plate and watching it slow down to a stop, narrating such activities will end up being static and routine. Because they are not paying enough attention to the daily activities around them, they do not learn to sequence events until much later. Because of their extra sensitive hearing, they block out what ends up being a monologue by their parents on daily activities. They miss out on parent's verbal explanations of emotions, intentions, motivations, and unusual events, just as they missed out on reading nonverbal communications. Since they find no comfort in their parents, they seek comfort in sameness, order, and predictability. When something unusual happens, they have no grounds to understand it and want everything to remain static and routine. Watching episodes of Monk might give you insight into this state of mind (we have many "Monk" moments in this house)!
Dr. Stephen Gutstein believes that autistic children can learn these building blocks of narration, even at older ages. Last February, when I first read his book Solving the Relationship Puzzle, I was skeptical! Now, I have seen with my very own eyes Pamela (1) enjoy face-to-face gazing, (2) communicate with her face, (3) interpret my facial expressions, and (4) follow my eye gaze. She performed these skills as an infant, but I wrongly thought she had lost them forever. I am learning daily that we can regain lost territory in relationship skills. She is eighteen years old and still smashing windows supposedly closed by being too old for brain plasticity!
Pamela seems to have caught onto referencing (Stage 2) more quickly than emotion sharing (Stage 1). I spent the past week processing every scrap I can find about emotion sharing and wrote up a vision. Writing down my plan helps me because I am not an RDI consultant, nor do I have one at this point in time. I am just a mom on a mission! What they have in their new computer system is far beyond what I can come up with on my own, but I have to start somewhere! The spiritual vision (from a Christian point of view) will help me in praying about our efforts. I described what I need to be thinking about and steps I can be taking during each and every interaction. Once I get MY act together, hopefully Pamela will follow my lead and develop more ability to share emotions.
Today's Escapades in Emotion Sharing
Today, I implemented my plans (listed at the end of this post) with interesting results. I made a point to be extra responsive to every interaction Pamela initiated. With verbal stims about Life Alert ("I've fallen and I can't get up") commercials which she finds funny, I would look at her sadly and talk about that poor woman, trying to redirect the stim along different lines of conversation every time. When she ignored my request to move her legs (she was sitting on the dog kennel with her feet resting on the washing machine), I crawled under her legs and pretended she was a bridge. Then, I stood up and waved, "Good bye, bridge!" Anything unusual catches her attention and treating her like a bridge was novel.
Pamela was not pleased about building her panda puzzle with me, but I had decided to do the puzzle first and then shop. I have already scaffolded this puzzle because of its difficulty. The first day, we focused only on the edges. The second day, we sorted the puzzles into three different colors (white, black, and green). The third day, she struggled with green on black pieces, so today I collected the white and black transitions on the fur.
While she put together her pieces, I worked on mine (pure black that you can only match by shape). Every time she fit two together, I smiled, waited for her to shift attention to my face, and made different remarks, "Hey! You put two together!" At one point, she put three together and shared her excitement with me. I responded enthusiastically again, this time with a high five. She found two to put together and referenced me to see if she was on track, "Help me with this!" I looked at it and told her, "I agree. It fits!" Then, she grabbed a third piece that she knew fit and put it together while I watched. I waited for her to shift attention and said, "Wow! White pieces are easier than black ones!"
Then, she floored me as we headed out the door to do our little shopping run. She paused and began sticking out her tongue at me playfully. I laughed, and we spent about half a minute making silly faces at each other! Yes, Pamela initiated something outside of her typical stim routine. Making funny faces is a great activity at this stage because you really cannot do it alone and have fun.
When I turned on the ignition, my favorite song came on the radio. Usually, Pamela pops in a CD right away, so I looked at her, waited for her attention to shift, and said, "This is my favorite song. You can pop in a CD when it's over!" Sometimes, Pamela fusses, but today she did not. While I drove, Pamela started her stim on days of the week, "What's TGIF?" I did something completely new by asking, "Friday. What do you think Monday is?" She replied, "TGIM." Then, I twisted it, "How about TBIM? Too bad it's Monday!" She laughed out loud at my unexpected comment. She asked about Tuesday, so I said, "Thank goodness it's prayer breakfast!" And, she came up with the acronym TGIPB.
We did our usual referencing stuff while shopping, but I made sure to be very positive and engaging in all of our reactions. Then, something nice happened with the clerk, who senses Pamela's sensitivities and makes a point to be sweet to her every time we shop. She greeted Pamela, who ignored her. So, I got her attention, pointed to the clerk, and remarked, "The lady said, 'Hi!'" Pamela returned the greeting. The clerk tried a couple of conversation lines that did not go anywhere and then complimented Pamela's jacket. Again, I pointed to the clerk and said, "She likes your jacket." Pamela looked at the clerk and said, "Yes, it's so beautiful."
I continued to pay careful attention to our interactions throughout the day. As with any relationship, we had our strained moments when both had to work hard. At one point in the evening, Pamela wanted to build the puzzle all by herself and very rudely told me, "Go away!" But, she made up for it when Steve came home. She hates when he has to travel overseas and she told him he could go to Knoxville in March 2008 (and we assume that means not before). She came up to me and looked me directly in the eye, wanting to confirm this. I avoid making promises I cannot keep, so I gave her a hug, pulled away to allow referencing, and said, "I don't know when or where Dad's trip will be. But, I do know one thing."
She responded with a gentle smile, "What?" So, I told her, "Your daddy misses you so much every time he has to go on a trip and he can't wait to come home."
Then, she beamed, "Where can I sleep?" to which I replied, "You can sleep in my bed until daddy comes home so you won't feel so lonely."
My Emotion Sharing Plan
If you have made it this far, you must be desperate for information . . . Anyway, here is my plan developed by me, myself, and I: Bible verse, spiritual vision, goal, elements needed to attain it, and my personal objectives for me, myself, and I.
Psalm 37: 4 Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.
God knows that, when we delight ourselves in Him, our heavenly Father, He will completely and abundantly fulfill the desires of our hearts. This relationship is the model for the parent-child relationship, and Pamela can learn to delight herself in her parents and important people in her life. While only God cannot give her the desires of her heart, we can show her the joy of dynamic relationships. I pray that learning to delight herself in a concrete expression of parenthood will teach her to love God and love others as herself. I pray that God will reveal to me the ways in which I can help her develop this delight.
The overarching goal of emotion sharing is for Pamela to desire sharing emotions with us. My goal is to recognize moments that we both feel emotionally bonded and spotlight them through anticipation and other elements. I need to develop a repertoire of fluid activities and actions that delight us. I will be careful to avoid mindless rewards and praises: for example, I can combine interjections with declarative statements and enthusiastic broadband communication, “Wow, I love building puzzles with you!” I can avoid caving to every whim by coming up with solutions that work for both of us. When Pamela interrupts an activity from which I cannot break away, I should let her know that I am disappointed and will get with her as soon as I can—and follow up on that promise with excitement! When she is in verbal-stim mode, I can either ignore it and distract her or morph it into another topic.
I already know that Pamela loves the following elements and will add to this list in the coming weeks:
• Build up to a surprising moment through hesitation and voice inflection.
• Unexpectedly make a change to an action or word.
Outside of these activities and actions, I need to make every interaction count! I can show interest and enthusiasm, especially when she makes an effort to share with me. I should keep my expectations low, responding to the smallest effort, just as a mother would react to her infant.
The following short-term objectives for me focus on emotion sharing during our interactions.
• Make Pamela aware of my intention to communicate through my presence and eager gaze and then wait.
• Begin communication only when I have her sustained attention.
• Pause when her attention falters, wait to give her a chance to regain her attention, and fall back on unexpected sounds and movements to reestablish communication.
• Pay attention to activities, actions, and elements we mutually enjoy for future reference.
• Respond with joy to forms of communication that are positive and engaging.
• Ensure every interaction ends with clear closure so she knows when she can relax.