Sunday, September 7, 2008

So tell me about this RDI thing...

I refer to myself on this blog as someone who "knows a thing or two about autism." All that really means is that I only have about 2 million more things to learn about autism. That became quite clear when we started RDI.

I typically refer to RDI, short for Relationship Development Intervention, as "the new therapy we're doing with Ryne," but that explanation is really inadequate. Yet it's such a daunting task to explain RDI, that it's easier to just put it in terms of where we've been. ABA was the old therapy, and RDI is the new. There is lots of information at the Connections Center website, but even that really only seems to touch the surface of what RDI entails. So let me start by just sharing a few observations about our beginning experience with RDI.

We knew absolutely zilch about RDI when we started. On a trip to Chicago last year, we made a visit to the folks that used to work with Ryne when we lived there. One of the directors mentioned that they were now incorporating RDI principals into their school , and she wished they had been able to use these techniques with Ryne. She mentioned in a non-pressuring manner that the other director was a newly certified RDI consultant, and that since RDI is implemented by the parents, we could do it long distance. This sat in the back of my mind for a several months, while we continued on with homeschooling and biomedical treatments.

But during that course of time, Marc and I grew very concerned about Ryne. We were really struggling in our relationship with him. He still had some bitterness about homeschooling, and I believe he was taking it out on us to some extent. He was also really struggling with OCD-type behaviors, making it very hard for him to connect with other people. I was finally starting to feel comfortable with the homeschooling process and realized that it was time to add in something that would help Ryne in these problem areas. He had come so far through ABA, but there just seemed to be some holes to fill. Mostly holes in his social development. I tried finding a social skills group for Ryne to join, but kept running into roadblocks and had a nagging feeling that that wasn't really the solution anyway. And then on what I can only call a complete whim, I made a call to our friends in Chicago. I explained we were going to be in town in a couple of weeks for a doctor appointment, and asked if we could stop in to get some help with Ryne.

Sure, they said. What can we help you with?

Oh, how about we try out that RDI thing?

And that's how it started. We had no idea what we were getting into. And we didn't care that we had no idea. We were just glad to be getting into something.

In our first meeting with our new RDI consultant, my head was spinning as she started to explain RDI to us. Core deficits of autism. Declarative language versus imperative language. Referencing. She always does a great job of explaining, but I think my brain starts remembering that I was a political science major who didn't do too well in psychology class, and this is starting to sound a lot like psychology, so I can actually feel my brain starting ... to ... shut ... down. (Good thing she didn't mention Vygotsky in that intro meeting!) But then when she put the power point presentation aside and started working with Ryne, it slowly started to click in my brain what she was talking about.

In one activity she placed, I think, three bowls on the ground, with an object under one of the bowls. She had Ryne guess which bowl the object was under. What was interesting was that if Ryne was told, "It's under that bowl," while the person pointed to the bowl, he had no problem finding the object. Yet if the person said, "It's under that bowl," merely nodding their head in the direction of the bowl, he was clueless. He wasn't noticing the nonverbal cue, so he'd just ask, "Where?!" The consultant then explained that this was a gap or hole in his developmental process.

Turns out Ryne is, developmentally speaking, full of holes. The RDI program consists of stages, and each stage roughly coordinates with a year of typical development in a child. The stages consist of lots of individual development milestones broken down into workable objectives. They say that nearly every child will start at Stage 1, and sure enough Ryne had a few objectives in Stage 1 that he needed to master. Things a typically developing child would learn in infancy. That was a little discouraging. But our consultant also explained that Ryne would just be filling in some small gaps in the first couple of stages. In fact, within 15 minutes of them working on the bowl exercise, he was tracking the non-verbal cues pretty easily and it's now a regular part of his communication with us.

Next, our consultant got us hooked up on the OS. The Operating System is where you find the nuts and bolts of RDI. You can only access the OS if you are working with a consultant, and you have to pay a subscription to use it. But in return you get basically a step-by-step curriculum in the developmental process, a place to upload all your videos for your consultant to comment on, and LOTS of educational resources. E-Learning presentations of Dr. Gutstein introducing RDI. Videos of other families doing RDI. Opportunities to participate in live webinars with a variety of RDI consultants on a variety of RDI topics. There is so much information on the OS that nine months later I'm still discovering new stuff. When we joined RDI, the OS was brand new, and lots of RDI veterans were frustrated at having to learn a whole new system (plus the stages had all been changed), but since we were brand new too, I think our learning curve was a bit easier. Nevertheless, it still took me around 10 hours to figure out how to upload my first video.

The week before we had our first meeting in Chicago, I also met a local mom who had been doing RDI with her son for a couple of years. Our sons and families had quite a bit in common, even though her son is younger than Ryne. She invited me over and helped me with the OS a bit and answered at least a hundred questions about RDI. She was also very generous in letting us borrow her RDI DVD.

Marc and I then spent the next few months immersing ourselves in RDI. We'd try to pick one night a week for us to sit in front of the computer either watching one of the E-Learning Modules or the DVD. We should probably get some sort of RDI Super Parents Award because we even spent the evening of our 15th wedding anniversary sipping sparkling wine and listening to Dr. G talk about guided participation! (Don't worry, we had gone out to celebrate the night before!) On nights Marc and I didn't learn about RDI together, I was busy reading through this RDI blog, or poring through the archived messages of the the HS-RDI yahoo group. The local mom's consultant also came to town to give a presentation on RDI, which reinforced what I had already been learning. I've come to discover that I need to hear all these RDI principles repeatedly and from different sources before they finally start to sink in.

So, yes, I know a thing or two about autism. But there is still so much to learn. We are approaching our 1 year anniversary in RDI, and I still feel new. But it's not a discouraging type of newness. I'm confident we are on the right path, despite hitting a few bumps. You can spend so much time learning that you forget about the doing, plus we fell out of the habit of our weekly RDI night once the weather turned warm and things got busy. But I'm also aware that this is going to be a gradual process, and we're committed to getting going again. I'm ready to learn another thing or two and continue on in this autism adventure.

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