From time to time, someone posts great links to articles or the work of other professionals that dovetail nicely with guided participation (which is the model RDI uses). A recent post spotlighted the ideas of Dr. James McDonald, founder of Communicating Partners, who focuses on relationship over mechanics in his blog.
One post answers the chicken or the egg question, "Which comes first cognitive learning or social learning?" If you really think hard about it, the answer is obvious. Because most autistic children are static thinkers and spot patterns quickly, early cognitive learning such as colors and numbers are easy for them to master. So easy that we ought not to spend any time on them at all! Pamela taught herself to sight read by figuring out how to much videocassette tapes (even pictureless ones) to their boxes! Since static learning comes so easily to them, I believe it is counterproductive to develop that part of the brain even more. Imagine a tree in which some branches are completely lush, full, and heavily laden with fruit while other branches are nothing but sticks. Pamela's branches for patterns, numbers, and static bits of knowledge is the former, but her ability to relate to people is like the latter.
Like RDI, Communicating Partners works on social learning first. Dr. MacDonald writes,
In fact it is now evident that a child will learn more of what he needs to be included in the social world from frequent daily interactions spontaneously than he will from intensive drilling on facts and skills for school. Making a child a successful student does not make him less autistic in real life and less isolated from society. Early and intensive social relationships are needed for that.I especially love his point that "Treatment is no longer limited to trained and paid persons, but is available to anyone interacting daily with the child." I have watched situations unfold between Pamela and cashiers, kindred spirits who instinctively know how to slow down for Pamela, my random dad and son who both create lots of uncertainty, my patient German mother who knows how hard it is to learn a second language, Steve's doting parents who think Pamela is smashing and love to see what she will do next, her loving aunts who think nothing wrong about Pamela toting around her babies (Baby Alive and Baby David), etc. Often, she applies the discoveries she learns from me in situations with other people. They unwittingly work on our objectives without even knowing that what they are doing is vital!
I used to be very skeptical about what social milestones Pamela might be able to develop since she is nearly twenty years old. Based on what I have seen her learn in the past two years, I completely agree with Dr. MacDonald's assertion that, "contrary to the belief and practice of many, most children diagnosed on the autism spectrum can become much more social and genuinely communicative than they are." As you know we have been working very hard on helping Pamela to feel okay about uncertain situations. The following clip demonstrates two very exciting discoveries Pamela is making (1) we can feel comfortable about not knowing exactly when Steve (her dad) will return from a long trip and (2) we do not have to be upset about broken things (Opa's truck and the radio).
Last week, the radio station really did go out the day we had a tornado watch and Pamela cried and cried for about five minutes. Anyone who has watched an autistic person meltdown over broken things knows how heartbreaking it is to see these very real tears. The cool thing is that I did not spend the week getting Pamela used to walking in the kitchen with the radio on static. Instead, we practiced Pamela seeing my calm, neutral face when we were in the middle of uncertainty and Pamela knowing that, as long as I appear calm, then things were going to be okay in the end.
I will close with another lovely conversation--and Dr. MacDonald wrote a neat post on that topic, too. Steve was out gassing up the cars (an enjoyable task now that the price of gas has dropped).
Pamela asked where dad was. I told her, "I don't know!"
She said, "I don't know!"
Then she asked, "Is it gas?"
I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders and said, "It's okay."
She nodded and told me, "We'll live."
Yes, indeed, Pamela! We'll live.