Three years ago, we pulled Pamela out of all small and large group activities. I felt like we were talking ten steps backwards. Common wisdom says that autistic children will eventually learn to socialize if we mainstream, include, and enroll them into group activities. Unfortunately for Pamela, she never seemed to advance beyond heavy-handed guidance, bordering on manipulation, from me. A few months later, she quietly told me that youth group was "too hard" . . .
Why did I pull out the stops? The theory underpinning RDI is that autistic children have an underconnected brain that makes it difficult to pick up social cues needed to succeed in group settings. Some research points to the relationship between a smaller corpus callosum and autism: "Corpus callosum reductions are present in autism and support the aberrant connectivity hypothesis." One news report puts a human face on this hypothesis.
What does this mean? It means that the brain has a difficult time communicating with itself, particularly in problem-solving and picking up social and emotional cues. People with this issue process much more slowly than those who are typical. It's like the difference between traveling country roads and superhighways: Pamela's brain goes at a slower pace and navigates more twists on the road than mine.
RDI approaches underconnectivity by going back to early milestones and slowly focuses on redoing developmental gaps that make social situations difficult. We have spent the past three years working on the foundation for small group activities. After seeing Pamela in the watch and do videos from last week, our consultant thought Pamela ready for small groups. About a day later, a Facebook friend who also has a child with autism posted that she was offering watercolor classes! Pamela loves drawing and painting, so I took it as a strong whisper from God!
Although Pamela did not know her teacher, Carrie, the setting was perfect: quiet with classical music which Pamela loves. The class was small: the students were two adults, a homeschooler, and Pamela. Carrie caught on right away to nonverbals and declarative language as you can see in the video. You can see how comfortable Pamela between her smiles and loving gaze at her paints.
I loved how careful and thoughtful Pamela was. She didn't automatically squeeze a new tube of paint because she noticed the tip needed to be punctured. She looked at what people, usually the teacher or the other girl, were doing before taking the next step. When she needed something, she asked for it. When she was confused, she asked a question. Pamela even made declarative statements from time to time.
The first project focused on becoming familiar with colors. Beginning with yellow, Carrie had them mix the paint and water, draw a line down the paper, and label it with the name written on the tube. Then, she moved the class through this process, color by color, until they had ten parallel stripes, labeled for future reference.
This activity spotlighted Pamela's processing speed. She clearly shifts her attention and takes an action at a much slower pace than her classmates. Had I not been there to scaffold her, she would have bogged down the class. After making two or three stripes, Pamela was familiar with the process and kept up very well. I also noticed that the task shut down completely when she needed something that was not truly essential (switch paintbrushes or get new water). It reminded me of Monk who he gets distracted and cannot function until whatever is bothering him is resolved.
Block and Color Value
This project was a color value study. They studied the lighting of a block, finding the sides that were dark, medium, and light. Then, they drew it and painted it, starting with the dark side and adding more water to lighten the color for the other sides. The teacher also introduced a very important tool for lifting color off the page: a paper towel.
My role was to help Pamela keep pace by doing non-essential things and pointing out what people were doing to help her shift more quickly. I backed out my support whenever she kept up with the class. When the teacher asked questions about light and dark, I gave Pamela more direct support to help her understand what the teacher was saying by thinking of something concrete like shadow and the overhead lights. Rather than tell Pamela what to do or get, I would be vague, "What do you need?" or "What did Carrie draw?" I thought Pamela attended very well to instruction, especially when the teacher had visuals.
Pamela seemed very thoughtful. At one point, she drew a shadow on her box just like we did in Pennsylvania (ten years ago) when we did Draw Squad. Pamela watched both her teacher Carrie and the homeschooler before painting and studied what they had done.
Carrie had two short projects left, but Pamela thought otherwise! She had worked for fifty minutes with one short break. She told me was tired and sat on the couch. I decided to watch the teacher do the next two projects. We have been working on them at home, which will give Pamela a chance to think through what Carrie is teaching at her own pace.
Why did I let her "quit" before the class ended? Trust underpins all good relationships. I trust that Pamela is not trying to cop out, that she really is tired when she says she is tired. She knows she can trust me, that I am not going to push her into the impossible, that I might guide her to the edge of her competency and back out when she's gone too far.
The biggest pain about RDI is filming and editing it. However, doing all that work is worth the effort. In the heat of the moment, I focused on the pace of the class and helping Pamela keep up. I did not realize what a wonderful job Pamela had done in watching and doing what her teacher and classmates were doing until I started editing the clips.
- Position Pamela closer to the teacher and within view of the homeschooler.
- Give enough support to help her keep pace with the class, especially when learning a new technique.
- Do non-essential things like closing the paint, pulling out a sheet of paper, pouring clean water, etc.
- Have plenty of fresh water on hand.
- Organize paintbrushes by kind since she goes through several during the class.
- Practice concepts she might not have had time to process at home: adjusting color value with water and lifting off color with a paper towel.