Thursday, December 18, 2008

Handling Bad News

Before I get into my post, I wanted to share a really thoughtful post about why one mother chose to homeschool her child with autism. I have been connecting to homeschoolers in cyberspace for 14 years. I have heard many, many horror stories such as children being tied to chairs, put in seclusion rooms (but not this heartbreaking), and having their mouths shut with duct tape. Diet violations. Dehumanizing treatment. Bullying. Physical abuse. Sadly even sexual abuse.

But, not everyone leaves the school system for bad reasons. We left because we thought we had a better idea of what Pamela needed. I did not think her teachers did anything bad, but rather they could not do what I thought to be absolutely best for her. Penny wrote a very eloquent post that I could not have written in my early days of homeschooling, and I heartily agree with what she expressed.

I can see signs of our work on uncertainty spilling out into other areas of life. Earlier in the week, Pamela and I spent the day wondering what was in some packages that arrived. She did not bother much at all about opening them right away, which is a good thing. One little thing I love about this clip is how well Pamela is picking up on subtle nonverbal communication. When I was talking, she started watching television through her "binoculators". Rather than verbally prompt her like an ABA automaton, I moved in closer to get between her and the television. She got the message and responded beautifully!

Today, I had to share some bad news for Pamela. I know this sounds mind boggling, but last Friday, Steve came home from a five-day business trip to Santiago, Chile. And, on Monday, he turned around and flew back for another five-day trip. That is 20,000 miles in two weeks! Steve told me this morning that he would not be coming home until Saturday, so I had the "fun" job of breaking the news to Pamela.

One of the major focuses of RDI is social referencing. Our work on uncertainty is a form of social referencing because Pamela is learning by watching my face, tone, and demeanor, that not knowing is okay. "We'll live" when things are uncertain. Rather than melting down, she can pay attention to my reaction and, if I am calm and neutral, then there may not be any reason for her to flip out. Page 12 of Solving the Relationship Puzzle says,
By the end of the fourth month, the typical infant has learned that the soothing voice tones and facial expressions of familiar adults can serve as a reference point, bringing instant emotional relief, even when not being held or physically comforted. Faced with confusing or ambiguous situations, it becomes second nature for babies to respond to their increased anxiety by gazing at a parent's face. If their facial expressions are calm and positive, this produces a rapid reduction in the child's distress, Alternatively if the parent's facial expression appears anxious or it is blocked from view, the child's distress will rapidly escalate. This process, called Social Referencing, plays a crucial role in the further development of Experience Sharing. Through Social Referencing, the infant gains security and confidence in interacting with his world. Once it has been learned, parents can begin more actively introducing novelty and variety into the child's life. They know that, even as they make the inevitable errors in providing too much or too powerful stimulation, the infant will be able to easily recover, through gazing at Mom or Dad and using their calm and happy emotional reassurance as a reference point for his own emotional state.
In the following clip, you can see Pamela's mild meltdown. Mild because I have seen her cry for five or ten minutes over unexpected changes in Steve's schedule. About forty seconds into the clip, Pamela begins to reference my calm and neutral reaction and you can see the "instant emotional relief" she felt by paying attention to me.

Tomorrow, we will have even more practice because the hot water heater stopped working today (and thankfully, my dad, Handyman Howard, lives across the street) and I have two toilets acting up. But, first, I need to practice my own calm and reassuring demeanor (instead of primal scream in a fetal position). I guess that is what happens when you choose to live in a house that is older than Steve and my age combined! (I'll let you do the math . . .)


Mrs. C said...

Oh, my. Thanks for posting this, though. I know I'm not alone, but it helps to see this from other people sometimes, too.

Will go click links now. Bless you!

poohder said...

LOL, this was so great and BTW WE LOVED the Amazing Expedition Bible.
Hope you do too. Someone would love the extra one as a Christmas gift.

MasterpieceMom said...

She did great, Tammy!!!! That was an extremely short meltdown and she referenced you almost right away. Great job!

The Glasers said...

Anyone who has witnessed meltdowns knows how hard it is to help them recover quickly. I am finding that social referencing is the missing piece we have needed for a long time. It is amazing to watch how she relaxes once Pamela focuses on my calm demeanor.

Jennie said...

Wow thanks for sharing this, it is so encouraging to see how well your daughter is doing! She handled that well.

Math Confused said...

Tammy, I just wanted to let you know that I'm enjoying your blog. This entry in particular was very interesting and true. Social referencing, honestly, is not a term I ever heard of, yet something I obviously knew about, just didn't know there was a word for it. It's also something I don't think people really stop and think about, or how important it is.
I'm glad your daughter is doing great and I wish you continued success.

The Glasers said...

Math Confused, join the club. I did not know the term social referencing and I did not put much effort into until RDI. I had believed the neurologists who claimed that challenges with the elements of social referencing (shifting attention, focusing on facial expression and nonverbals, following eye gaze) were a hard-wired deficit for autistic people. While some may not be able to over come it, Pamela has--and we didn't start with her until she was 17 yo!!!! Pretty amazing if you ask me!