Monday, May 30, 2011

AO, and I Don't Mean Ambleside Online

Isn't it ironic that two things in my life have the initials AO: Ambleside Online and the Autism One conference, which has graciously posted videos. Since I am not sure how long they will be available online FOR FREE, I suggest you stop reading and start watching Dr. Nicole Beurkens' presentation on Relationship Development Intervention (RDI). She hits all the things that helped us so much when we started down this path back in 2007.

Now, I don't mean to be ugly or controversial, but I want to contrast what I know about RDI with the one on Verbal Behavior by Dr. James Partington. I admit I am biased against behaviorism, not only in how I handle autism but in how I teach children. My goal is to help people see that we must put first things first in teaching language-delayed children. Assuming that children in the autism spectrum cannot learn pre-verbal relationship skills is a mistake. Some can! Mine filled in these holes in her development after she turned 18—18 years old, not months old. She still has a long way to go but she has made progress in her social skills because of it. Autism therapies can be expensive, so it helps to learn from the school of hard knocks. This post represents that!

First Issue - Partington lost me four minutes into it when he talked about hitting language hard. I know you are dying for your child to speak, much less speak well. I know that! Both of my children talked late (David had back-to-back ear infections for two years). Pamela is still learning English as a first language (and Spanish too—the other day she constructed her own unique sentence, "God es mi padre." Muy bien, mi hija). What is so wrong about teaching your preverbal child to talk?

If they lack the nonverbal receptive and expressive skills, they will be missing vital components of communication when you focus on words only. I know! I made that mistake and I hope to help others avoid doing the same. As I am trying to be fair, I do applaud Dr. Partington for cautioning parents about academics (letters, colors, shapes) before their time, but now I must add a caution. He is skipping a vital step: broadband communication (and, if you don't know what that means, I refer you back to Dr. Beurkens).

Second Issue - I also applaud Dr. Partington at minute five for encouraging the first intellectual habit that Charlotte Mason prized above all others: attention, a sign of active, engaged minds. See, I'm fair! But—you knew that was coming, right—but, he focused on having many trials. Being fully engaged and attentive is an exhausting process, especially in the rapid drills typically found in behaviorism. The pace is so fast it often requires you to reward children with food. When allowed to work at a slower rate and given time to process and think rather than automatically act, children do not need artificial rewards.

Third Issue - I thank Dr. Partington at minute six for recognizing the importance of parent participation, the home, and other environments. I love how he contextualized asking a child to recall the word leaf by being outdoors when he pointed to one and asked the student, "What is it?" He used this anecdote to illustrate the importance of having many trials. Well, I have a much larger point. Does the child care what a leaf is? Has she pet a velvety bud? Has she watched a leaf emerge from its bud in the spring? Has she felt its smoothness, traced veins with her fingers, and smelled fresh green? Has she collected them in the fall and wondered how they changed color? Or, does she feel manipulated about having to learn a word for a thing that doesn't interest her in the least? While she may know how to label leaf through drilling, she does not know its essence. To quote Mason, "The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care?" (page 170).

Fourth Issue - At 7:20, the speaker points out the need to vary what you are doing and not engage in the same type of activity. Mason educators know the value of short lessons and going from one style of lesson to another (doing math for ten minutes and shifting to singing when attention lags). However, we could completely avoid drilling the same kind of activity in trials if we worked with children in context and focused on developmentally appropriate tasks. Why would a child want to learn imitation if they see no point to it? If the child doesn't find it intrinsically interesting and doesn't understand why anyone would want to imitate, then it is just monkeywork.

When a child wants to eat an orange, that is the moment to work on imitation. Scaffold the child into success by scoring and partially pulling the peelings of two oranges. Sit at the table with your child and, once you have full attention (I will get to that in a bit), do one little thing like pick up the orange, smile expectantly, and wait for them to imitate you, even if it takes 45 seconds for the child to figure out what to do. Once they hold the orange, grab one pre-pulled corner, smile, and wait. This is imitation (and a whole host of other things) in context, rich in meaning for the child with a natural consequence, not an artificial reward. You can think of all sorts of opportunities for teaching imitation in daily life for things our children already need to learn.

Fifth Issue - At about 10:45, I agree with Dr. Partington's concern about social interaction. But, I want you to think very carefully about this. The ways in which VB teaches language sets up a very unnatural style of interaction: prompt, quick action, reward. What do you think repeating this cycle over and over tells the child? Other people think. Other people command. The only point to getting the right answer is a reward. It puts the child in a passive, receive mode for long periods of the day. Something interesting happens when the child learns to speak well. They have seen controlling the conversation modeled for them for years, and monologues about things that only interest them becomes their modus operandi! Conditioning any person in that manner might prepare children for schools as they are today. Will it prepare them to live for anything other than awards?

Sixth Issue - Yes, I appreciate the work of Lovaas in the 1970s, described in minute 13:30. I know that we should never give up on our children: there is always hope. Where are the Lovaas children now? They are adults. What kind of lives are they leading? Why has his original research never been followed into adulthood? Where are long-term studies of children who have graduated from ABA and transitioned into mainstream schools? (By long-term, I meant the adult years.)

Seventh Issue - The scariest quote in the first half of the presentation for me was this at minute 16:15: "We know how to make these kids to want to work for us." If what they are learning had meaning, if it was contextualized, if it was done at the pace in which they could process and think, if they were allowed to acquire missing developmental milestones rather than learn discrete skills, you wouldn't need to make them work for you! As the two of you share experiences, the child gleans knowledge and new thoughts from them.

Eighth Issue - At minute, 17:50, Dr. Partington gets into the whole expressive versus receptive language thing in his example of using the word book. He is missing some vital things about books and young children. Books are meant to be shared. Books are more than things to want and get. For a child to able to enjoy a book with you, many things must happen first. They must have joint attention. They should coordinate actions with you. They must be able to anticipate and enjoy novelty so that, when you read slightly differently to spotlight another way to experience the book, they find it fun. Children must have an idea of the context in the story, or the story will make no sense to them. Finally, I'm having a hard time remembering the last time I said to a friend in conversation, "What is something you can read?" But, I digress.

Ninth Issue - Again, I love what Dr. Partington said twenty-three minutes into the presentation about dogs. Through the window, a child sees a dog walking outside. The temptation is to go into teacher mode and ask a bazillion questions about dogs. Well, some teachers, that is. That is not what I would do from a Charlotte Mason and RDI perspective. He is right about punishing a kid with a bunch of impertinent questions about dogs. However, I disagree with his recommendation to say all you want. That is ineffective, too. What I would do is what Amy Cameron calls match plus one. To "dog," I might say, "Cute dog!" To "brown dog," I might say, "Brown like Loa," tugging at Pamela's episodic memories about her favorite dog from childhood. Then, I would smile and wait to see if Pamela felt competent enough to make another comment. In other words, give the child a chance to be an equal partner in the conversation.

Here is a sample conversation that just happened: Pamela just came into the room with a bowl of grapes that she had washed. Focused on writing this post, I ignored her. Suddenly, I heard, "Grapes." Without turning to look at her, I said, "Grapes are yummy!" Pamela said, "Grapes are healthy!" I turned to her and smiled, "Grapes are healthy and juicy." Now, that she had my-face-to-face, full attention, she laughed and started eating. Sometimes, people with autism complain about having to make small talk. We probably have been so focused on what must be done that we have not modeled chit-chat. When we have to work so hard to drill proper speech, grammar, and syntax, we lose track of little conversations with no agenda, no demands, no purpose. RDI allowed me to relax and appreciate small talk for what it is.

Tenth Issue - Twenty-five minutes into it is a slide about identifying existing language skills. What ever happened to pre-language skills? Does the child shift attention? Share joint attention? Understand facial expressions? Use them? How rich is the vocabulary of gestures? Do they understand gestures? Do they look to trusted adults when unsure? Do they watch others to learn? Words can only take a person so far if they are missing out on pre-language skills! I know because I had a sixteen-year-old who didn't have them! Verbal Behavior is missing out on a huge gap in nonverbal communication skills. If they lack these abilities, then they will not learn like other children, which is one reason why they become bully magnets in school. Of course, that is not their fault. It is our fault for not teaching them pre-language skills.

Eleventh Issue - Minute Thirty-Two. In the speaker's clinic, they make children look at every person in the room and greet them. Can you imagine what typical kids will think the first time that child gets on the bus? There is a time and place to do this sort of thing. For example, Pamela knows that, when we get together with Steve's side of the family, the Salvadoran custom is to greet and give your cheek to each person in the room. She also knows that my side of the family is more lax about greetings. In a small gathering, my family greets people individually, but, in a large gathering, a general "hi" works, too. Context makes a huge difference for any behavior that we have. A behavior in one situation is often the wrong thing to do in another. That is where our children get into trouble. They look at social interaction as following a set of rules, but context sometimes changes how we interact.

Twelfth Issue - At 33:25, the speaker talks about routines. Following a routine is usually not the problem with our kids. Transitions from one task to another is the problem. Deviating from the routine such as canceling a trip to the playground because of rain causes a meltdown. Thinking flexibly about the routine is the problem (it is okay to start lunch at 11:59 instead of 12:00). Seriously! Some kids are that locked into routine.

Thirteenth Issue - Responding is not thinking. Another scary quote for me was, "I'm never going to make those connections for them" at minute 35:06. I find this problematic in the school system for all children. Making connections for children robs them of the joy of thinking for themselves. To quote my friend Jenn Spencer, "I am not the fountain from which knowledge springs for my thirsty students. It is not my job to provide all the answers. When I do I rob my children of an opportunity to exercise their own minds, and a lack of exercise leads to atrophy.... One of the hardest things for me to let go of was the need to ask questions that pointed them to my way of thinking. This included giving 'comprehension tests' in which I drew out all the important ideas for my students and held my opinion as the correct answer. The result of leaving this behind has been that sometimes they do not get the ideas that I got at all, sometimes they come to the same ideas I had after having lots of time to ruminate on the material (making it theirs forever, since they were the ones doing the thinking), and sometimes they enlighten me with ideas I might not have thought of." If you focus on what a child thinks and how a child thinks, they will learn to make connections for themselves.

Fourteenth Issue - Finally, thirty-nine minutes into it, the speaker talks about non-verbals, and I'm glad he recognizes the importance of sign language for children who haven't developed their vocal musclelature! He also sees that having an ability means nothing to the child unless they use it spontaneously, without prompting, in a real-world context. Then he spent over fifteen minutes listening to his explanation of ABLLS before I became unglued at minute 56:05 when he equated "establish yourself as a conditioned reinforcer" to "make friends with them" and "make them want to do things to please you." While I completely support developing warm relationships with children, a danger in relying the same motivator most of the time: if you please people, you get rewards. I value helping a child (1) create meaning where there was none before, (2) feel competent about what they are doing, (3) trust you to provide enough support for them to feel successful but enough challenge to make it interesting, and (4) have just enough novelty to keep attention without overstimulating them. The intrinsic reward for the child is that "aha" moment, which in Pamela's case is accompanied by a giggle. Playing to one motivator "getting the good things faster" concerns me because people work for many reasons, not just utilitarian ones.

Fifteenth Issue - I was so glad to see footage of Dr. Partington working with a real child with autism at 1:04:00 (we are into hours now). Because he thinks the child is ready to express her needs in signs and words, I made a few assumptions. By the time an child is ready to communicate in words, he has mastered the art of nonverbal communication. He doesn't just walk into the kitchen and stand there like this little girl did. He doesn't simply walk to the refrigerator and wait, which is often what an autistic child without language does. He actively seeks your attention, follows your eye gaze, and, when you shift your face in his direction, he points and gestures. He watches for your response to see if you understand. If not, he finds another way to communicate. He is also at the stage where he is beginning to share joint attention with you. So, when Dr. Partington starts teaching the little girl in the video language, I assumed she had all of these pieces in place. She did not. I did not see any effort to work on these vital components: shifting attention to him, following his eye gaze, waiting to see if he is paying attention before signing eat, and sharing her enjoyment of the pizza with him. To put it crassly, Dr. Partington is nothing more than a pizza dispensing machine to her.

So, how would one go about eating pizza with this child? How do you feed infants? Often it is a game where you encourage the child to shift attention to you and the spoon by making novel sounds and closing the distance between the baby and the spoon. Then, you smack your lips, lick your lips, and say, "Mmm. That tastes so goood!" If you need a refresher go, check out a first spoon feeding video on youtube. You can see how the little boy is already communicating a desire for more: reaching for the bowl, kicking out with his legs, leaning into his mother, opening his mouth for more, etc. He checks his mother's face for reassurance, but, when he is no longer hungry, he turns away. The mother carefully watches what he is communicating and responds to him. Notice how much mutual enjoyment the mother and her son share.

Compare the two interactions. The baby boy is already communicating volumes more than the little girl does through his facial expressions, body language, and attention shifts. Dr. Partington and the girl completely miss out on any joy, mutual enjoyment, etc. Of course, they have no relationship because this is the first time they have worked together. That ought to be a greater aim. He is very instrumental with her: the minute she signs, he dispenses the food, and there's no effort at communicating any delight or mutual satisfaction. She is the manding machine for him, and he is the vending machine for her. Nothing else matters in the interaction.

In the swing segment (1:13:45), her father is wonderful. You can see how he focuses on experiencing sharing as well as the long e sound, the laughter, the joy. Notice what he does when she stares at her feet, he moves into her line of sight. He gets experience sharing. For him, the interaction is more than reinforcing her: it is emotions shared, the delight.

Sixteenth Issue - When Dr. Partington shifts to working with her mother, again you see the instrumental style. Even though the little girl is signing, she is completely tuned out from her mother. Think back to the baby and those moments of enjoyment between mother and child. That vital ingredient is missing here. Sharing food is more than nourishing our bodies. It is communal. There is joy and fellowship and enjoyment of one another's company. I will commend Dr. Partington for saying at 1:18:30 the importance of letting the little girl come to her and slowing down!

How did we work on face-to-face gazing without food? In the first two weeks of transitioning to RDI, I would walk up to Pamela and wait. If she did not shift to me, I would make a novel sound, each time different: "Yoo hoo!" Clear my throat. Or I might wave or do a silly dance move to encourage that shift. My final maneuver was to move into her line of sight. Once she shifted her gaze (which does not mean I expected her to eyeball me to death either). Then, I would tell her something. Anything. "I'm going to take a shower." "I'm going to call Dad." "I'm going to use the computer." Sometimes, my message contained a naturally rewarded consequence. "Dinner is ready." "I'm going shopping."

Very quickly, Pamela realized that Mom expects me to pay attention to her when she speaks. In fact, Dr. Partington mentions this point about waiting until a child looks at you before speaking later in the video (1:36:30). The big difference between what he does and what I do is the pace and intent of communication. When Dr. Partington speaks, he expects you respond quickly. When I speak to Pamela, I am telling her something that may or may not require a response. Think about it. Communicating is more than making demands of one another. Because I wasn't commanding her every time I opened my mouth, Pamela was learning that sometimes people share information without expecting you to act on it. Some of our communication is like that.

Seventeenth Issue - I appreciate Dr. Partington's take on stim toys at 1:19:45. I can drink a cup of coffee and enjoy my conversation with you. In fact, I might savor the moment more because of the aroma and my delighted taste buds. I agree with Dr. Partington that the little girl does something cool at 1:21:45. She uses her eye gaze to let them know that she wishes to eat from a different bowl. But, there is something vital missing that young children do when they communicate. The whole point of learning to shift attention to watching you is to see if you are paying attention to them. She is missing the key component called referencing here. This pre-verbal skill is when the child points to the bowl, checks your face to see if you are seeing the communication, and waits for your response. At this stage of development, being able to reference another person for a variety of reasons is far more important than using words. In this segment, the little girl broadcasts her intent for a different bowl like radio waves sent out into space. The mother and Dr. Partington move so quickly to respond, they do not give the little girl the opportunity to watch what they are doing and see if they get her message. I can see they were excited, but they missed that chance for the girl to look at her mother and see that mother understands.

Eighteenth Issue - At 1:24:00, Dr. Partington spends a lot of time on reinforcers. Why? His goal is to teach children to ask for what they want and make demands of you. Because he is ignoring the missed developmental stages, such as appreciating novelty, he must use artificial reinforcers. Think about peek-a-boo. Why do we spend so much time on a silly little game when we could be teaching infants to make demands of us!

We are teaching them foundational elements of mutually enjoying each other, which is naturally reinforcing. At first, peek-a-boo is done very slowly until the baby gets the pace and sees the fun of dad covering baby's face and slowly pulling off the blanket. Then, as the baby gets it, dad adds little variations, or novelty. If she adds them too soon, the baby cries because he doesn't understand the fun of anticipation and change. After baby learns that, peek-a-boo becomes a wild game with all sorts of unexpected events, false expectations, and surprising pops-up. Learning to appreciate anticipation and novelty naturally reinforce our social interactions. A child who finds novelty fun will not need fewer artificial rewards. Likewise, children who are making meaning (not just learning labels) and feeling competent about what they are doing (not just going through the motions) need fewer artificial reinforcers.

Nineteenth Issue - At 1:28:00, I admit I cracked up at his warning to parents to avoid teaching children to ask for things they wouldn't want in their wildest dreams (bed, toilet, etc.) Very few kids ever want to go to bed, so that makes sense. But, I do have qualms about his reasoning for not teaching children to say things you don't want to hear until they are bigger than you and can hurt you ("leave me alone" and "no"). Why wouldn't we want them to tell us that? Sometimes, our children are truly worn out and need downtime. That is just as much a need for them as food. I understand that children with autism may need treatments and therapies in their early years to help fill in developmental gaps. We also need to keep in mind as Dr. Beurkens pointed out that we are vastly overscheduling the lives of our children, whether they are autistic or typical. The sensory systems of autistic children are so easily overwhelmed. Because they process more slowly, a slow pace to us is a merry-go-round to them. We ought to be very careful about what therapies we chose for them: just because something is available does not mean we must do it.

I think what Mason wrote about the rights of children ought to apply to those with autism. We should not mistaken organized games and structured recreational activities as play. It is work to them because of everything they must filter out, filter in, process, and monitor. They need free time like any other child. We must allow opportunities for personal initiative in what they do without us taking over and ruining it (pages 36-39). Yesterday, I pulled out some pony beads to sew on eyes on a stuffed toy for a friend. A few hours later, Pamela came to me and showed me a bead necklace she made out of about 50 pony beads. I warmly acknowledged her effort and told her they were beautiful. Then I waited. Sure, I wanted her to wear them. But, I waited. About a minute later, she was proudly wearing them and twisting them around her finger like all girls do. Mind you, Pamela is not a dress up kind of girl, so it was a sweet moment that I could have ruined by doing the thinking for her.

Twentieth Issue - At 1:35:00, I loved how Dr. Partington shared a very important point about all people, including autistic ones. People don't mind unpredictable payoffs as he describes in the slot machine analogy! I would like to take this a wee step further. Unpredictability, one of the secret ingredients of peek-a-boo, is very hard on our kids, which is why they need it in small doses. When we worked on Pamela's anxiety's during the whack-a-mole campaign, we discovered that unpredictability heightened her anxiety, leading her to control people. We spent a long time working on it, and we still have to work at it. David and I discovered yesterday that he had spent too much time being predictable by watching movies in his room. When he tried watching one in the television room downstairs, Pamela had a nuclear meltdown. It took at least fifteen minutes for her to get a grip (and it didn't help that she has a nasty cold sore inside her lip). She eventually chose to sit on the back porch in the rocking chairs and wait for David to finish watching the movie before she came inside. After I calmed her down, David told me, "Mom, I have to make a point to watch movies downstairs sometimes, don't I?"

How do you start working on unpredictability? By adding little variations into a predictable routine. Even when Pamela was little, I made a point not to get trapped by routines. Pamela cried if I skipped an aisle at the grocery store. To help her prepare, I would smile, say "One, two, three, weeeee!" and push the cart really fast to the next aisle. Because we moved every few years, Pamela was forced out of the normal routine until she established new ones at the new neighborhood. In RDI, we use this term called productive uncertainty. You add just enough unpredictability to challenge a child without pushing them into meltdown. A very practical way is to set up doing chores, baking, putting groceries in a bag at the self-checkout, or any activity through interactions patterns. You get the pattern going, and you add a teeny, tiny variation.

Suppose the little girl wants some grapes. You get a bowl of water, place it at the table, and show her how to drop it in the water. You start an assembly-line pattern: mom picks off a grape and gives it to the girl, girl drops it in the water. Then, repeat. You go as slowly as she needs to go. Once she is competent and gets her role, then you add a variation. Just like you might gasp or make an alerting sound in peek-a-boo, you do that first to let her know that something different is about to happen. Then, you take an unexpected action: you drop the grape on the table and wait for her reaction with smile on your face. If she calmly picks it up and finishes her role, you go back to the pattern and then throw in a different variation: you put your hand at a higher or lower level than she expected, you gently bop yourself on the nose with it first, you gently bop her on the nose with it, etc. As long as she goes with the flow, you randomly insert a little variation into the interaction pattern. You might even do something really silly like eat the grape first! However, if she cries or gets frustrated, you help her to recover her emotions, get back to the predictable pattern, and wait until she is really confident before you try a smaller variation than the one that upset her. Basically, you apply peek-a-boo to routine activities into which you can weave an interaction pattern.

Twenty-First Issue - At 1:38:30, I like how Dr. Partington points out that we should encouraging our children with smile and warm facial expressions. That is true for all children! (A quick mathematical rabbit trail SMILE—breathe deeply for no purple math problems are on the horizon—do you want to know how to trip up a student who feels competent in math? Frown and look puzzled while they answer the question!) I also agree with him on timeout: sometimes, autistic children want to be left alone and act up just get a timeout.

Then, Dr. Partington shows some errorless training, which caused me to pause again. I can understand why we think it is necessary because autistic children often feel incompetent at everything. Even in RDI, we scaffold a child by setting up the situation to allow the child to succeed in some small way while still being challenged. However, when you are working for an external reward like food, then making mistakes are far more devastating. You didn't get what you expected (the reward) because you made an error! When discovering something new or mastering a step motivates you, then the stakes are lower. When you focus on process (learning to tie shoes) rather than product (a reward for tying them correctly), you feel less pressured by making mistakes.

Life is messy. Humans make mistakes, and, in fact, to err is human. Too many of our spectrum children are perfectionists by nature. Some require us to work hard to model the fine art of making mistakes, remaining calm and neutral when something runs astray, and figuring out what to do about the mistake. One of the most common questions I get from parents new to homeschooling is how to help their autism spectrum child stop melting down over wrongs answers! Making errors is not the issue: the issue is whether or not you make an error, you know you made an error, but you find a way to repair the situation. The video of Pamela making mistakes in learning to tie her shoe illustrates this beautifully.

Twenty-First Issue - From 1:40:00 to 1:47:00, Dr. Partington spends a lot of time labeling names with flashcards, a decontextualized way to learn labels. It reminds me of a friend whose child was drilled with flashcards: I am changing the situation somewhat for anonymity. Suppose we drill, "What do you find in a pool (common here in the Carolinas)? Water, ladder, and floats." The child memorizes the exact response and has it perfectly. One day, you see a duck in the poll and you head the child outside, point to the unexpected thing in the pool, and ask with great excitement, "What do you see in the pool?" The child misses the novelty and mechanically replies, "Water, ladder, and floats." This is the kind of thing that was happening to the child, and my friend had to work very hard to contextualize understanding.

Dr. Partington does recommend we "show them what a tape is and does" but it sure looks like "do as I say, not as I do." How do I teach Pamela new words in context? Here are two examples: copper and fungus. Because we look for meaning and connections, living books and real life offers opportunities to reinforce new words (copper kettle at the Revolutionary War encampment). I also like his point about the giraffe and zebra at 1:42:00. If a child can only express thirty words, I would certainly go for new words that have meaning in the child's life as he suggests chicken in Hawaii where they run on the road or iguana if that happens to be one of your pets. However, some people carry the concept of functional (1:45:07) too far, especially in choosing books for our children. If we only read books that spotlight functional understanding, then they will miss out on embracing fantasy and laughing at the ridiculous. I think focusing on meaning is more helpful than focusing on function because most of us hope that some day our children will have an active imagination and a lively sense of humor.

Twenty-Second Issue - The little boy at 01:47:00 is doing many wonderful things: he shares joint attention with the adult in looking at the book. He is using body language and looking at the therapist. I like what Dr. Partington suggests in having a child "tell me about the woman." That is narration in a nutshell. Where we do it differently in the Charlotte Mason world is that we teach in context: when outdoors, children sight-see and picture-paint by sharing what they observe. The art of knowing and narrating occurs in context in concrete, real-life situations. That prepares them for the shift to more abstract settings when they hit formal lessons starting in Year 1 (starting at age six or later for some children): picture study, nature study, narrating a passage from a book, etc. 

We even follow-up narrations very differently. Rather than focus on instrumental, imperative "gotcha questions," we focus on meaning and episodic memory. When a character breaks a bone, we think back to the times when I broke my arm (1974), Pamela broke hers (1999), and David broke his arm (2003 and 2005). When a character botches a recipe, we talk about culinary horror stories. When we read about a hawk, we recall our own hawk rescue and Pamela even remembers this incident every time she catches an insect in the house and gently releases it outdoors. We seek opportunities to ponder, wonder, and share what we feel, not poke holes in her sense of competency.

Twenty-Third Issue - At 1:49:00, Dr. Partington talks a bit about intraverbals (talking about things in their absence). The contextual way to do this is telling the absent parent what happened. When Dad comes home from work, children tell him about what they did while he was away. When children come home from a trip to the hardware store with Dad, they tell Mom all the things they saw and did. When Grandma calls, they tell her about the birthday party. I see a clear pattern in how Verbal Behavior approaches tasks versus a relationship-oriented way (Charlotte Mason and RDI). We seem to focus on the whole in a real, concrete context that has meaning for the child while VB seeks to fragment and decontextualize in an abstract manner. We seem to tie an unknown to a prior known, tapping into episodic memory, while VB seeks to drill unknowns until they are memorized, which is quite a different thing from known.

Twenty-Fourth Issue - At 1:57:00, Dr. Partington makes a vital point about paying attention to what people are doing. Inattention to people becomes a problem when you focus on words before nonverbal communication. Because RDI concentrates on referencing (watching what people do and think about how we might alter our actions or stay the course), children are more able to transition to social situations even when their verbal skills lag. First, we focus on teaching them to reference their parents. They discover that people with more experience provide clues on what we should do. A great example for Pamela was when she was not sure about what to do with metered mail and she referenced me to find out. Then, they learn to reference other trusted adults and eventually peers in small groups such as when Pamela took watercolor classes.

Watching what people do is not an afterthought once we have taught them language. Watching what people do is a means by which children learn to do and learn more language. Rather than focusing on discrete details about what Michael is eating and wearing at 1:58:00, we are focusing on the relationship. The kind of thought pattern we aim for our children to learn is not focused on objective details: "Michael is eating a sandwich and baby carrots. He has brown hair and eyes. He wears glasses. He wore a red T-shirt and blue jeans." We focus on subjective details: "Michael is frowning at me. I wonder why. Maybe he doesn't like my tapping the table with my finger. What happens if I stop tapping? He still looks upset. What if I move away a little? He is relaxing. I bet I was too close to him. I'll have to remember that next time."

If you have never heard of any of this heretical, completely topsy-turvy way of addressing autism, I encourage you to study Dr. Beurkens' presentation and chew on that only for awhile. Drink it in and absorb it. What sounds so simple is really a challenge in our "more is more" and "now is better" world. Think about it. Learn to live it.

Teaching our children from a developmental, relationship-oriented point of view requires a huge paradigm shift—a major change in how we interact with our children that runs counter to the culture of enlightenment thinking. In the beginning, we focus on what we are doing as parents: are we slow enough, are we more careful with our nonverbal communication, have we cut out therapy for the sake of therapy because it is available and fairly inexpensive, are we being more declarative in my language to let our children think. It may require the guidance of an RDI consultant (ask your friends for not all consultants are created equal). You may end up changing schools or homeschooling or changing how you homeschool. Change is hard!

This change in my thinking started at the turn of the century (whoa, that makes me feel old), and I am still learning as I go. Friends of mine like Jennifer Spencer and Lisa Cadora have found the change sometimes painful but worth it. We no longer worry about learning because we are learning to live and enjoying the new life we live.

8 comments:

Penny said...

BRAVO, BRAVO, BRAVO!

The Glasers said...

You started it! LOL

poohder said...

Whoa...what a post...you go girl!

Di said...

OMW Tammy. Awesome post.... hope you don't mind but I have just shared it on facebook (too late now!!)

Kathy said...

ok I think I just read my allotment for the day lol GREAT post!

The Glasers said...

Sometimes, a girl just has something to say!

AutismOnABudget said...

Thank you! I like this so much better than listening to it. I always enjoy your perspective as well.

John and Susan said...

Excellent! I couldn't agree more.