This week had two major milestones for Pamela: her twentieth birthday AND reaching Stage 3 of RDI. Stage 3 reflects the dynamic thinking of children between the ages of two and three years old. During this stage, we will be working toward short conversations about what things we did together and our different perceptions. Pamela will learn to take on the responsibility of sharing joint attention, finding out how other people feel, and trying different things for fun. She will be improving her ability to collaborate by working together better, checking our actions, reactions, and communication, and using language to smooth out coordination between us.
Right now, we are poking and probing the foundations for this objective. We are focusing on something very difficult for Pamela: constructing a coherent narrative about past events that include feeling and meaning. Like many people with autism, Pamela remembers incredible details about past events. The first twelve years of her latest autobiography filled one section (36 pages, both sides) of a five-subject notebook. She is starting to sprinkle it with feelings here and there. But, there is very little depth of feeling or meaning attached to the story of her life. Here is a typical entry:
RDI focuses on episodic memory and self-awareness as one of the five core deficits of autism: "the ability to reflect on past experiences and anticipate potential future scenarios in a productive manner. Developing an internal mental space to consider, reflect, preview, prepare, regulate, evaluate, hypothesize and dream." The hardest thing about encoding episodic memory is the emotion (the subjective) associated with the what, when, and how of the event (the objective). What is even harder for our kids is seeing the present as a continuation of the past while previewing the future!
Chat about the Future
One thing I love about how things have been flowing lately (and I give all the glory to GOD for this) and merging into one tapestry. All year long Pamela and I have been working on experience stories (a la the association method) to work on past, present, and future tense syntax. During the week, I preview future events by having her ask and/or answer questions about what might happen, either orally or in writing. Here is an example of Pamela and I talking about going to co-op the next day:
Chat about the Past
We also review past events by having her ask and/or answer questions about what happened, either orally or in writing. Up until now, my focus has been on syntax and language rather than a coherent narrative (remember, these are the baby steps required for a person with aphasia and autism). Here is an example of Pamela and I talking about what happened at co-op the previous day:
As my consultant explained to me the first lesson in our objective (guiding Pamela in recalling feelings and deriving personal meaning from her narratives of past events), I realized we have been laying the foundation for this all year long. Quickly, a plan for this fell into place. Borrowing from Charlotte Mason of tying something already learned with something new, I could cut up the typed narrative of a past event into sentence strips and show her to ask feeling questions (learned a few years back through the association method) about important facts. Then, I could tap into the idea of having a moral to the story a la Aesop and come up with a moral to her story.
I decided to pick an event that I thought worthy of spotlighting and encoding into an episodic memory. Every Wednesday, we always pick up lunch or dinner for Pamela at a drive-thru restaurants. Pamela usually chooses a different restaurant in advance, so we headed to McDonald's to order lunch last Wednesday. We drove up to the drive-thru and saw a long string of cars. My heart sank because I was already running late for a dental appointment and usually Pamela would rather wait or have a mini-meltdown because it was taking too long. I knew better than to suggest we try another restaurant at the last minute. Those of you with autistic children need no explanation! Pamela noticed the very long line too and very calmly said, "Changed my mind. I want Hardees." I thought it important to focus on how beautifully she handled a situation that would have been a crisis for her a few years ago. Here is what she typed for her past experience story:
Adding Feeling and Meaning
I cut up the story into strips and placed them in order. Then I wrote out "How did you feel about" and let her decide about which fact to ask a feeling question. She picked a fact and answered the question, while I recorded what she said in writing. We ended up selecting five facts for feeling questions, and Pamela blew me away with her ability to pinpoint accurate feelings for each situation.
Then, I explained to her how we were going to write a moral to this story and, after going back and forth we came up with this: "Changing your mind is great. You can think of something else." The follow video shows exactly how we worked on attaching feelings to facts and deriving personal meaning to picking up lunch from the drive-thru.