Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Finding Balance

As the holidays are winding down, I've been reflecting on the past month, and generally getting down on myself for not being more "on-top" of things. My plan was to work with my son intensively during his school break, while keeping up with my family and work obligations, still finding time for myself somewhere along the way. No matter how much I get done, it never seems to be enough.

I know that other RDI parents are feeling this same pressure. How do you find time to work with your child, while still giving your other children the time they deserve, never mind your spouse or significant other, and extended family and friends? And how to you integrate this with the pressures of daily life, especially in these rather frightening times with the flagging economy.

I know that when I am tense, it affects my interactions with both of my children. I find myself getting short-tempered with my son, and he is less able to rise to the challenges I am working on helping him to master. Like all other RDI parents, I am familiar with the feeling of trying to squeeze in some "taping time", in the midst of other obligations. I know the frustration of trying to capture that perfect moment on tape, which somehow rarely seems to happen when the camera is rolling.

Unfortunately, I don't have any easy answers. In my work as an RDI consultant, I talk to families about filling out stress management plans, but real life has a way of stepping in. Consistency is important, but it is also important to take a step back once in a while, and to admit that we are doing the best that we can.

Our children learn by watching us. If they see us putting pressure on ourselves, they will do the same, which ultimately takes away from the joy and connection that we are working so hard to establish. I think it is important that we, as parents, learn to give ourselves a break. All challenges are here for us to learn and grow, but that can't happen if we are too tense to notice.

As the new year begins, I would like to propose that RDI parents, and all parents raising special-needs children, make self-care a priority. I find that my son's progress is enhanced when I am relaxed, and ironically, less focused on the end product of a given interaction. When I am feeling uptight, he is more likely to shut down. Building resilience in our children is one of RDI's long-term goals, and the best way to do this is to model it. Let our children see us taking time out for simple pleasures, and letting go of the pressure of daily life for a while. We generally can't change the world, but we can change our minds about the world. Take care, and happy new year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Holidays

This is a crazy time of year, especially for families raising a child with autism. The holidays bring family gatherings and changes in routines that can be extremely difficult for people with autism. The current economic crisis is another source of stress for many families this year.

The holidays can be an exciting time for families who have made some progress in their RDI program. There are many opportunities for guided participation, from decorating the tree to wrapping presents to cooking. It can also be a time of celebration, when you see your child responding to family traditions differently than in past years. There are many opportunities for guided participation, from decorating the tree to shopping for gifts, and many opportunities for positive episodic memory.

The holidays can also be a stressful time, especially for families who are just getting started. The social gatherings and changes in routine can be stressful for our children, and for us. This is often a difficult time to work on remediation goals. It can also be discouraging when changes we are seeing at home are not as apparent with extended family and friends.

As a veteran RDI parent, let me offer this encouragement - it will get better. The first year is often the hardest. If you hang in there and keep on working through the year, your next holiday season will be very different.

This is a time for many families to slow down and simplify things as much as possible. Try not to over-stress yourself and your child. Take things one step at a time. When we are stressed out, we cannot guide our children. They will sense our stress, which will only add to their own sense of unease. They will not be able to learn if they are tense and upset.

Try to let go of your expectations, and just enjoy the season as it unfolds. Take some time for yourself. Don't worry if your house doesn't look perfect, or if you don't have time to send out cards this year. Let go of anything that does not bring you enjoyment. Take a breath. Enjoy your holidays.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Troubleshooting for Beginners

Setting the stage for co-regulation is one of the most challenging aspects of getting started in RDI®. The following questions are designed to help families “troubleshoot” common obstacles to setting up a co-regulatory interaction with their child. These questions are designed to help families reflect on common mistakes, and are not intended as a substitute for the advice of an RDI® Program Certified Consultant.

1. Are the roles clearly defined?

Prior to starting a co-regulatory pattern, it is important to clearly define roles for each participant.

2. Does the child understand his role?

Never assume that your child understands his role, even if it seems very simple and clear to you. Show the child what you want him to do, using strategies suggested by your consultant.

3. Is the child capable of fulfilling her role?

Choose roles based on your child’s capabilities, not on what you think your child “should” be able to do, or what other children of the same age can do. The goal of these early, co-regulatory experiences is to allow your child to feel competent in an area which is extremely challenging – namely engaging in a back and forth “dance” of co-regulation with their partner. If your child’s role is overly challenging, he will be unable to focus on the interaction with you, and he will not experience the feeling of competence that is crucial for the development of trust and resilience.

4. Is the environment too distracting?

Are you trying to engage your child while she is watching a favorite video or engaged in a preferred activity? Are you trying to set up co-regulation in a loud, busy environment that is overwhelming to your child? These are challenges for a higher stage. For now, work on setting up co-regulation in a familiar, distraction-free environment.

5. Are you using too much verbal language?

Too much verbal communication can be an obstacle for both parent and child at this stage. Many children have difficulty processing verbal communication. If you are trying to “explain” the child’s role, he may be unable to process all of your words, which will lead him to withdraw from the interaction in one way or another. Other children are extremely verbal, and will use their words to try to control the interaction. Since 80% of all communication is nonverbal, it is important to give our children ample opportunity to practice both reading and using nonverbal cues.

6. Are you allowing the child to control the interaction?

Children who do not feel competent participating in a dynamic, co-regulated interaction often cope by attempting to control the interaction, thus making it static and “un-threatening”. These children will generally resist your initial attempts to establish co-regulation. It is important to work through this initial resistance, even if your child is not happy about participating. Your consultant will give you specific strategies for working through this initial resistance, which will decrease once your child is feeling more competent.

7. Are you trying to “get” a specific response from the child?

Co-regulation is like a dance, in which each partner adjusts to the other. It is not a static system in which there is a “right” or “wrong” answer. In the beginning stages of RDI®, your child is learning how to read and respond to your cues, which is why it is important for you to be in the lead at this point. However, that does not mean that your child is expected to “comply” with your set ideas of how the interaction is supposed to go. It is important to clarify the roles and limits of the interaction prior to beginning, but the direction the interaction takes may vary within those limits. If this is challenging for you, please ask your consultant for guidance.

8. Is the child emotionally/physically ready to work on remediation?

Remediation is challenging for your child. Think about a time when you were learning something new that was challenging for you. How receptive would you have been if you’d been tired/hungry/stressed-out? Choose times when your child is fresh and ready to learn.

9. Are you adding simple variations (“just noticeable differences”) to successful co-regulatory patterns?

Once the initial pattern is established, you want to make sure it stays dynamic by adding small, “just-noticeable” differences. These variations can include, but are not limited to, changes in pacing, distance, sounds, environment, roles, materials, etc. Ask your consultant to help you in choosing variations that are appropriate for your child.

10. Are you allowing the child time to process the changes when you are adding variations?

When you add a variation, you are making the interaction more dynamic. This is challenging for most children who are starting RDI®. Since the primary goal of RDI® is to help our children feel successful in dynamic systems, we need to spotlight these moments and make sure our children are processing the changes. Pausing directly prior to the variation gives your child a cue that something different is about to happen, and pausing after gives your child time to think about the change and how she will respond to it. This is the essence of dynamic interactions, and is essential practice for your child.

11. Are you returning to prior successful frameworks when the variations are met with extreme resistance?

Not all variations are met with thoughtfulness or enjoyment. If your child becomes extremely distressed when you introduce a new variation, pause and return to the previous pattern. Several things could be happening here. It could be that the initial pattern is not established in your child’s mind. Or it could be that the variation itself was simply too challenging. Or, it could just be that your child is having a bad day. If your child is consistently shutting down when you add variations, ask your consultant for guidance.

12. Are you slowing down and waiting for the child to repair breakdowns?

It is inevitable that co-regulation will break down at some point. When this occurs, our first inclination is to step in and take some action to “bring the child back”. It is important to give your child opportunities to practice repairing these breakdowns. When your co-regulatory interaction breaks down, give your child adequate time to think about the breakdown and to take some action to repair it. Some consultants recommend counting to 45 slowly in your head while you wait. If your child tries to leave, or does not repair the interaction, then use whatever strategies your consultant recommends. Eventually, she will take some action to repair the interaction.

13. Are you using declarative, experience-sharing communication?

This is critical for success in RDI®. Monitor yourself when you are communicating with your child, not only during co-regulatory activities, but throughout the day as well. Strive for a ratio of 80% declarative/20% imperative communication.
These are only some of the potential obstacles families face when working on establishing a system of guided participation with their child. This document certainly will not cover all obstacles, and it is important to seek the advice of your consultant if you are confused or unable to determine what is causing the problem.

The main purpose of this document is to offer families a “cheat-sheet” of potential obstacles as they reflect on their work with their child. As parents, we want to build competence in our children, and as consultants, we want to build competence in the parents who we work with. It is my hope that this will be a useful resource for parents in spotting potential obstacles to co-regulation and helping them to make the most of their consultation sessions.