As promised in my first post on the second unit of language, I want to share some ideas about where I think RDI dovetails with the Association Method. If I could boil RDI down into one over-arching principle, I would say the goal is to redo developmental milestones missed originally. Therefore, I believe the key to figuring when to implement the Association Method ought to flow from the development of typical children. Since many readers may be "lone rangers" (without consultants), I plan to refer to readily available documents found on line (such as Zero to Three handouts), rather than RDI stages. As you read through this post, think about your child and try to assess if the language delay is due to the overall delay or something co-occuring, above and beyond what is seen in typical autistic children. If you are dealing with garden variety autism with no extra-special language delays, maybe the answer is to keep doing RDI and reevaluate language in a few months.
Focus on Typical Development
Babies spend the first year of life becoming masters of nonverbal communication (both receptive and expressive). In the early stages of development, nonverbal trumps verbal. So, before going crazy with fifty nouns and six repetitive sentences, it makes sense to follow the path of babies if your child is nonverbal or low-verbal. Should you follow this exactly? No, every child is unique and the key is to fill in gaps. I am just attempting to give a broad outline to help you figure out where the Association Method might fit:
0-3 months - Build trust between you and your child; be a source of comfort when they are melting down; respect their need to take a break when overwhelmed; encourage times when you are both nonverbal and expressing yourself through sound, facial expressions, and body movements.
3-6 months - Continue the foundation previously built; sounds become more structured (babbles, coos, gurgles). In my opinion, this is a great time to introduce simple phonemes in a playful, unstructured manner.
6-9 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame situations in which your child has a chance to learn by copying you; spotlight feelings in your sounds; pair common gestures with your words. In my opinion, this is a great time to continue simple phonemes, going back and forth like conversation.
9-12 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame situations in which your child can (1) follow simple directions and (2) communicate through sounds and body; develop interaction patterns. In my opinion, this is a great time to get serious about phonemes if vocal play seems stalled.
12-15 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame situations in which your child can (1) communicate what they want through actions, (2) point to common things you name, and (3) imitate what you do; join in and elaborate any pretend play your child starts. In my opinion, this is a great time to continue working on phonemes and make plans for the fifty nouns.
15-18 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame situations in which your child can (1) respond to simple questions and directions through their actions, (2) react to the emotions of others, and (3) perform simple roles in household chores. In my opinion, this is a great time to get serious about the fifty nouns, if no nouns have emerged.
18-24 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame, elaborate on, and speak declaratively about pretend play, problem solving, and testing things out; whenever your child uses nouns, add another word in response ("apple" "Want apple?") In my opinion, this is a great time to continue working on the fifty nouns.
24-30 months - Continue the foundation previously built; frame, elaborate on, and speak declaratively about pretend play, problem solving, testing things out, and interactions with another child; whenever your child puts words together, add another word in response ("want apple" "You want apple?") In my opinion, this is a great time to continue working on the fifty nouns and make plans for the six repetitive sentences and questions.
30-36 months - Continue the foundation previously built; spotlight sentences with two ideas. In my opinion, this is a great time to get serious about six repetitive sentences and questions . In time, stories in the second unit will cover developmental milestones listed in the link: personal stories (own name and characteristics of people), past tense stories (what happened yesterday), present progressive stories (acting out own stories), etc.
Focus on Cognition
Another principle to consider is that cognition (thoughts and ideas) precede communication. When Pamela was eighteen months old, she had no clue that crying was a cause producing the effect of getting what you want more quickly. Therefore, she saw so no point in learning the names of things because she saw no connection between using the name to get the object of desire faster. We started suspecting autism at two years of age (Steve's sister helped us zero in that quickly), so I took sign lessons to learn the names of nouns of things I believed Pamela wanted most: grapes, cookies, yogurt, milk, etc. Although my strategy was sound, it still took Pamela a long time to make connection between signing a word and getting what she wanted! We never had a "Helen Keller at the water pump" miracle. Once Pamela did make the connection (around age three), she quickly dropped the signs and started learning nouns at a rate of about one noun a month! We called it the word of the month! I stopped keeping a spreadsheet tracking every noun when she turned four. At that point, nouns and animal sounds came more quickly.
Applying cognition to the developmental profile above, it helps to understand the function of phonemes, nouns, and the six repetitive sentences and questions. Early in development, infants figure out how to make sounds with their mouths. After months and months of play and experimentation, the babbling, cooing, and gooing become predictable phonemes, the building blocks of words. When you are doing interactive patterns with a nonverbal child in the early stages of RDI (tossing a ball back and forth), you might want to try vocal games in which sounds are the object in the pattern. I do not think it needs to be formal and structured at first, but playful, fun, and joyful.
Once vocal play becomes easy, it makes sense to start playing around with putting two or more phonemes together in a playful manner, well before nouns enter the picture if your child is still low-verbal. At this point, you should have more opportunity for lots of variation, sound effects made from phonemes in their pretend play, imitation games with multiple phonemes, even little words when you do things together (uh-oh, oh-no, y-ay, uh-p, w-ee, ow-ch), etc. I still remember Pamela's first two spoken words when she was three years old: coo-coo (cookie) and so-see (music). If your child comes up with her own phonemes for a word, why not repeat it with joyful nonverbals to celebrate their accomplishment? From there, you might even be able to guide coo-coo into coo-kee with more back and forth sound games.
Again, cognition is the key. A child who starts coming up with their own words understands the concept of labeling nouns. A child who points to things she wants or sees is grasping the idea of a noun. A child who follows the simple direction to get her Beanie Baby understands a set of words identifying a particular noun. These are all signs of readiness to begin work with the fifty nouns. I think picking nouns with simple phonemes that are part of every day life or of special interest to the child are great ones to target at first. Meaning and context fuel the need for nouns.
Well before you consider starting the six repetitive sentences and questions, you might need to make sure cognition leads the way. If you have a new object in a group of familiar ones, does your child look curiously at the new one? Does she point with a questioning look? If so, the first question, "What is this?" will help her ask for names. When you are driving to the store, does your child observe the new restaurant that just opened up or point out a truck that made a wrong turn near a ditch. If so, "I see a/an/some _____" will serve that function. If your child requests things, then "I want a/an/some _____" will suffice. Without the desire to ask questions, share observations, or make requests, the new and improved syntax has no meaning or benefit to a child.
Focus on the Unique Child
The hardest thing about autistic children is that they are so scattered in development. Even though our RDI stage reflects the dynamic intelligence of a toddler, Pamela is working on decimals in math, reading sixth grade level books, writing at about a third grade level, and speaking like a preschooler. That is a wide range of ability! The key is to focus on those strengths and scaffold through their weaknesses.
Suppose a child's fine motor delays prevents her from doing all of the writing. Try using magnetic letters for the kinesthetic channel and figure out the reason for the delay. Pamela was very delayed in writing until we did patterning exercises to improve her bilateral coordination, worked on strengthening her fingers and pincer grasp, and figured out that she was left-handed and treated her as such! If a child has dyslexic tendencies, the Association Method may be a solution for that, too, because it falls under the same umbrella as Orton-Gillingham and the Spalding Method. So, even though reading or writing are well above the developmental level you are targetting in RDI, if the child can do these things, by all means, incorporate it into your work with the Association Method!
At first glance, the association method seems very static and drill-like. To be honest, a child with a severe language disorder that goes beyond the scope of autism may very well need some focused, drill-like work on language. It would be no different from a child with autism and cerebral palsy needing some focused, drill-like work on motor skills. However, I have embedded some RDI principles into what we do with the association method. When reading stories, I try to make sure I react in nonverbal ways. We reflect on any emotional highs or problem solving abilities of the characters. We talk about what the story reminds us of (perhaps, something that happened to us). I give Pamela much more time to think and process before she speaks, showing a warm, encouraging smile. Rather than correct syntax errors directly during oral work, I wrinkle my forehead and frown, say "What?" or "Huh?" or repeat the question, using my voice to emphasize the word giving the best syntax clue. Our Association Method work is much more fun since we started RDI as you can see in this video clip I made for the Charlotte Mason Conference in 2007.
Part III of the second unit is here!