Monday, March 29, 2010

Chit-Chattin' 'bout Collards

Recommending that a parent of an autistic child try Nothing sounds like heresy. There is also great danger in doing too much. Understood Betsy is a classic, but fairly unknown gem--enjoyed by children and adults alike--that beautifully illustrates the pitfalls of doing too much and the power of Nothing. This book ought to be required reading for every teacher and parent.

What do I mean by Nothing? "Silence, waiting, giving the child time and simply observing the child carefully."

Let me give you an example of how this looks. A few years ago, I would think of everything Pamela needed to know and tell her, which left her very little to ask.

Me: "Pamela, I'm going to Oma's house to pick up some collards. I know you don't like collards, but I love them. I'll be back in five minutes."
Pamela: "Okay."

Think about how unbalanced my actions were: Mom (27 words) versus Pamela (1 word). I left her absolutely no "scope for the imagination" (to quote one of my favorite literary characters). I discouraged Pamela from interacting. I had done all the thinking. What was there left to ask? I did not give her a chance to be a partner in the conversation because I assumed she couldn't, which was correct because years of doing too much prevented her from learning. I left no reason to initiate; I did not invite her to respond.

The other day, this is how the deal went down. I gave David the details of where I was going and what I was doing and skipped out of the house while Pamela was upstairs. Not knowing where I was going peaked her interest. After I came home, I put the warm collards on the counter and walked into the room where Pamela was and read a book.

Pamela: "Where d'you go?"
Me: "Oma's house."

I do not correct her sloppy English nor do I give her too much information. I leave her wanting more.

Pamela: "What do you get?"
Me: [I smile mysteriously.] "I got something."

I walk to the kitchen, and she follows out of curiousity. Once there, I pick up the yogurt container and hold it.

Me: "Mmmmmmm . . . it smells good."
Pamela: "What's that?"

I raise the container just out of her eye level and pop the lid, so we can sniff it.

Pamela: "Is it beans?"
Me: "No, it's collards!"

I can see she's not sure of what I meant. I position the container, so she can see them too. She wrinkled her nose and made a face.

Pamela: "I don't like it."
Me: "That's okay. I love collards."

She looks at me in disgust.

Me: "Dad likes collards. What about David?"
Pamela: "Yuck! David don't like it."
Me: "You're right! David doesn't like it."

I model correct English in a subtle way without forcing her to repeat after me.

Now, go back and read through this conversation that really happened. Look at how balanced our words were. She said about as much as I said. She was an equal partner who did not require prompting from me. She enjoyed being in the conversation because her role was as important as mine. She walked away pleased with me because she was not manipulated or controlled. She was pleased with herself because she held her own.

A feeling of competency and confidence is the emotion glue that causes positive experiences like that to stick in her mind. As each experience builds one upon the other, she feels more able to be a true partner. She finds people just a little more understandable. She finds herself just a little more capable. She feels more relaxed in a social situation, which enables her to express herself more easily.

Did you catch how Nothing works? Here is a wonderful outline by Dr. James MacDonald, author of Communicating Partners:
  • Wait silently for the child to start an interaction.
  • Respond briefly, then wait again.
  • Wait with a look of anticipation.
  • Do one thing then wait for your child to take a turn.
  • Play in a back and forth way, each doing about the same amount.
  • Wait when you think he can do more.
And, if you want to know more about Nothing, click here.

The parents in our RDI discussion group tried an experiment that illustrated Nothing beautifully. We did a picture study in two ways. First, we studied the picture for a few minutes, I turned it around, and I drilled them with questions. One parent objected immediately, her interest shrivelling into a little ball, "But, I wasn't looking at the details!" Another, whom I know to have a sharp eye for details, incorrectly answered some of my nit-picky, completely pointless questions. Had I not projected a sense of humor about the whole thing, I could have ticked off two good friends! Then, we repeated the process but this time had a conversation about the painting, volcanoes, spring, El Salvador, and architecture. What do you think got stored into our long-term memories, the number of hills or the impression of life in a Salvadoran village?

After reading about doing Nothing, one of the parents said mysteriously, "That got me thinking . . ."

That's we all should do . . . get thinking and let our kids do likewise!


Mary said...

Profound. I am always trying to emulate you. Thanks for posting to your blog so I can learn from you.

Therese said...

Thank you!!!
Today,Nathan had an appointment with the therapist. Something really bothered me about this first appointment. It was that the therapist didn't try to get to know him. It was all about "her" agenda....and it leaves me wondering if this approach of not doing "nothing" is really going to help. He certainly wasn't overly happy with his session.

The Glasers said...

Trying to *get* a person to talk who has not figured out nonverbal communication and back-and-forth interactions is putting the cart before the horse, Therese!

I am so sorry Nathan had a rough time! RDI can be hard at times too because you are working on dynamic thinking. However, the idea is to have shared experiences, not forced agendas. That takes the pressure off everyone!