Friday, August 07, 2009

A Work in Progress

"The human brain is a work-in-progress that reflects your experiences and your relationships" writes Dr. Jeanne Segal. Three years ago, I might have added, "Except for autism," but now I know differently! I would not have believed this nugget ("Scientists studying people over age ninety have found that their subjects' brains can continue to produce new neural pathways even though older pathways are dying") to be true because of all of the neural plasticity blather until I saw Pamela learn to do things children with autism are not supposed to do at the ripe age of eighteen-plus. Three years ago, a statement like this would have made no sense, "The human brain is highly social." Now, I have seen that even the brain of my autistic teenager is highly social when I work within her zone of proximal development (where she is developmentally, even if that means working on preschooler skills).

The following quote fills me up with hope that Pamela will continue to blossom in her ability to make connections and relate to others:
Because the brain remains flexible throughout life, it is capable of continual change. This constant development is influenced by the people with whom we are emotionally attached. As we grow older, this inter-dependence continues to change the way our brains function.

The key factor in shaping the function of the brain is . . . relationship!

Ya, think?

Too many times, I read that RDI is nothing more than a kinder, gentler way of shaping behavior. Okay, I do end up changing behavior, but I do not do it by reinforcing targeted responses because half of the time I am not sure how Pamela will respond. The thought of punishment or reward does not even occur to me when we are interacting with one another. The other day Pamela cried out and acted a bit rude toward me when I did something unexpected. Because I realized right away that she misunderstood what I was doing, I worked on guiding her thinking first.

We have the Netflix option of having three DVDs checked out at a time. Pamela has one, David has one, and Steve and I "share" ours. Right now, we have four out because, when a movie is not stocked, they send the next item on the list plus order the unstocked item. So, we have four DVDs in our possession right now.

I noticed we had FIVE return envelopes because the last time I mailed two DVDs in the same envelope. The return envelopes were on the desk right next to Pamela where she was sitting. Since we only needed four, I threw one away. Pamela got worried and said in a high pitched voice, "We need it! Take it back!"

I paused and, when she grew quiet and shifted attention to me, I explained that we already have four envelopes. That still did not satisfy her because she said, "This one!" and pointed to the trash. Then I picked up the envelopes and counted them out, "We have four envelopes. One" I paused, and Pamela joined in on the count. We counted the rest together, "Two, Three, Four."

Then, I said, "We have four DVDs." We counted them out. Then, Pamela said, "Good."

I did not have to tell her how to change her behavior nor did I have to shape it. Once we shared the same understanding of the situation, my unexpected action made sense to Pamela and she calmed down. The episode added to Pamela's memory bank of situations in which her mother will stop and explain things that she does not understand. I become more trustworthy in her eyes.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am becoming less reliable to teach Pamela the importance of monitoring other people. On one shopping trip, I did not go through the door if she did not hold it for me or I forgot to get a cart. If I did that every time, Pamela would develop a mindless habit of keeping the door open or getting the cart. Some days, I act like my old self and remain completely reliable to avoid getting into a rut.

Other days, I am more of a ditz. Yesterday, I took my socks off in the car because my feet were hot and one fell out of the car onto the asphalt. After Pamela got out of the car to go to the store, she spotted the sock immediately. She said, "Oops," picked it up, and put it back in the car. I do things like grab the wrong cereal even though she told me which one she wanted or drop the shopping list (she picked it up and said, "You dropped it."). I have forgotten to take the cart when leaving the store or left a bag at the self-checkout. In both cases, Pamela acted appropriately in repairing the situation.

Sometimes, I let Pamela learn through natural consequences. She was at the passenger door of the car and called out, "Open the door." I was busy putting bags in the storage compartment before I returned the cart. She repeated her request two or three times but did not come to make sure I was paying attention. So, I pretended that I hadn't heard her! I put away the cart and, when I turned around, I saw Pamela standing behind the car watching me. She did come to see why I wasn't paying attention, but not fast enough to catch me before I walked away with the cart. Then, I apologized for not unlocking the doors and we went home.

I guess you could say I am shaping Pamela's ability to monitor me, but not with clear, direct reinforcements. My goal is not for her to acquire language, knowledge, and the procedures of life in a static, scripted way, but to apply what she is learning in situations that are unique, spontaneous, and unpredictable. Dr. Segal's gestalt nails it here,

To learn in a manner that produces change (and not merely a glut of information), you need to engage the emotional centers of the brain. There is a difference between learning, taking in new information--and changing, consistently applying what you have learned to the varying circumstances in your life.


JamBerry said...

I love your post, and that last quote. That sums up why we left ABA. It's not the Jman wasn't learning some new skills, but he wasn't changing--he wasn't becoming 'less autistic.' If anything, he was becoming MORE autistic--more skills, but more autistic. Our goal wasn't for him to be better trained or skilled, but for him to become less autistic. ABA and behavior mod wasn't accomplishing that AT ALL. With RDI, though, he's really GROWING, and--surprise, surprise--he's still learning handy skills along the way (without the 'behavior mod' training). Thanks for summing it all so nicely in your post!

Laughing Stars said...

Another amazing, multi-layered post! :-)

Jennie said...

Mrs. Glaser,

I love what you said about working on your child's zone of proximal development...about working with their child where they ARE instead of where they are supposed to be. I find myself doing that and appreciating my child going through even some infantile/toddler stages (like experience sharing) even though she should be past that by now. Your post is inspiring to us moms who hear "your child will never..." Thanks for sharing!

The Glasers said...

To quote a line from "Galaxy Quest" Jennie . . . "Never give up! Never surrender!"