Friday, April 16, 2010

What Eggsactly Is RDI? Part IV

Is an autistic child who doesn't speak nonverbal or noncommunicative?

There is a huge difference. Infants are born noncommunicative: their actions and vocalizations express how they feel for they don't intend to communicate with another mind. It takes the average infant about 15 months for horizontal integration (i.e., nonverbal communication) to come online. Even though they may not have any words, they communicate. Not only that, every time they point to something, say Easter eggs, and look back to check their parent's face, they have the desire to know if they share the same feelings. That motivation to share their inner world and learn more about other inner worlds is the foundation for building dynamic thinking.

RDI tries to model this process and redo missed developmental milestones, first, by helping the parents learn Guided Participation Relationships (GPR) and, second, by guiding the parents guiding the child to master nonverbal communication. From March 2007 to May 2008, we managed to learn enough about GPR to guide Pamela from Stage 1 (infant level) to Stage 2 (one- to two-year-old level), lone ranger, with the help of a bunch of dear cyberfriends. Our consultant, Amy Cameron, filled in some gaps in our GPR and got us started with vertical integration, or executive function skills. Pamela is well on her way for she worked up to stage 3 (two- to three-year-old level) in July 2009. At present, RDI has twelve stages in the child objectives.

The brain's boss, the pre-frontal cortex, manages mental processes that control and regulate behavior, attention, memory, language, motor skills, etc. in adapting to ever-changing, real-life situations. People who don't understand executive function expect an articulate, highly intelligent Aspie with impressive static skills (music, art, mathematics, memory, computer skills, etc.) to be successful. Their struggle lies in dynamic thinking, the domain of executive function. The following list of pre-frontal cortex functions explains why ASD adults with great language, high IQ, and solid education struggle to stay employed, live independently, and develop relationships in which both parties find real companionship:
  • Start and stop tasks (or why transitions are hard for our kids).

  • Persevere when challenged (or why our kids melt down when the going gets rough).

  • Recognize when novel situations are significant (or why someone threw a tantrum because he didn't know that rain meant no beach).

  • Develop alternative plans when unpredictable events disrupt routines (or why your reliable teen unloaded dirty dishes after someone interrupted the dishwasher cycle to take a shower).

  • Inhibit inappropriate behaviors (or why you nearly died of embarassment when your sweet girl looked at the veins of an elderly lady's hand during the sharing of the peace and said, "Is it old?").
We are seeing the early stages of executive function in Pamela. While coloring Easter eggs, she monitored me with her peripheral vision while executing her role. In the video below (the one I showed in Part II of this series), Pamela looks like she is ignoring me at first. While she was opening and exploring the box, I watched her attentively and she stayed focused on her task. When I did something different (take the egg stickers) 45 seconds into the clip, she stopped what she was doing and watched me. She went back to her task while I flipped over the bag but glanced at me when I grabbed the egg bands. She returned to her task and started filtering out my actions because she categorized them as the same (taking and moving stuff). At the 1:25 mark, I grabbed the cup--the same action as before (taking and moving stuff). Then, I did something completely different and Pamela immediately filtered in that odd act of mine (putting the cup to my eye). She dramatically shifted her gaze to me. When she realized my actions were insignificant, she shifted back to her task. I started punching holes in the box (something completely different), so she split her attention between sneaking glances at me and working on the cups. When she struggled to open the bag of dye tablets, she began to monitor me more closely because she needed reassurance. At the 2:24 mark when I deliberately paused and gave her my full attention, we looked at each other. I nodded to reassure her about the bag and she decided I must be telling her to get scissors.

Do you understand the beauty of the elegant dance I just described?

This truly is a monumental shift in dynamic thinking for Pamela!

How did this happen? We slowed down our interactions, giving Pamela time to observe, process, think and do (or not do). While we apply static skills, quickly without thinking, dynamic skills take time and thought. They cannot be rushed. For an autistic person, they require even more time: time to split attention between monitoring another person and doing one's role, time to process that something different has occurred, time to think whether or not it is significant, and time to decide how to respond if necessary.

Reading demonstrates how important both static skills and dynamic intelligence are. Children must learn to learn phonics and recognize sight words automatically, which is why Charlotte Mason endorsed teaching both, a static skill. She also knew that a dreary page full of repetititive words are "one of many ways in which children are needlessly and cruelly oppressed." She made teaching dynamic by starting with nursery rhymes, which provide novelty and productive uncertainty, and by suggesting many activities that offered enough variation to keep attention fresh. She discouraged parents from coming up with nonsensical patterns to practice phonics because reading ought to be a search for meaning. She reviewed word patterns by dictating sentences for children to spell. She suggested that, if a passage had unfamiliar words, the child could leave a blank space, giving them something meaningful to discover in the ensuing lesson. Finally, she let children retell the passage and what they understood rather than having them answer a bunch of static questions requiring little thought. Narrating back a reading involves a sense of story, summary, inference, prediction, etc. Charlotte Mason's ideas were brilliant because she gave children an active role in reading and thinking. She spotlighted meaning in every lesson because she intuitively recognized the link between dynamic intelligence and reading comprehension.

Sensory issues and challenges with vertical integration go hand in hand. When a child is hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, she is monitoring everything, filtering in nearly everything, and filtering out very little. Too much of this overwhelms the brain, leading to meltdown. When a child is hyposensitive or hyperfocuses on something that absorbs his interest, he is monitoring very little, filtering in nearly nothing (except the source of obsession), and filtering out nearly everything. Children with severe sensory issues benefit from sensory integration therapy or HANDLE.

Like many children in the spectrum, Pamela used to fear balloons. Her automatic reflex (static thinking) was to scream and cover her ears at the sight of a balloon. Last May, she started experimenting with water balloons. She enjoyed filling them and tossing them on the brick patio. Her screams were a mixture of joy and excitement. Eventually, she made tiny balloons no larger than a bubble gum bubble and asked me to pop them. She squealed in a happy way. Her residual automatic reaction was still squealing, but she was teaching her brain to a new algorithm for monitoring balloons. They could be exciting and fun, instead of terriying. In time, she worked up to popping larger air balloons by sitting on them and eventually stomping them. She even had me pop large balloons with a pin in her presence. She filled her episodic memory with positive experiences, and her fears are much less than before. She invented this process of desensitization all on her own, another sign of her dynamic thinking.


Joy said...

Wow, I didn't know RDI helped executive function. That's great. Does it help the parents with their executive function at the same time, I wonder? I really need it....
Also, I can vouch for the fact that HANDLE has sure seemed helpful for both parent and child in our case.

walking said...

RDI focuses on dynamic thinking, which is what the brain does in when it is acting like an executive. I think it would be important to let a consultant know if you have executive function issues. I can see how that would get in the way of teaching dynamic thinking skills if it is a struggle for parent too.

Anonymous said...

These posts are valuable! Tammy, you have such a great gift in explaining things! Super Teacher! Thank you for sharing. Sincerely, Diane G.