“RDI is not other ASD interventions, and does not simply mask the condition with rehearsed behaviors, but actually changes the makeup of the brain. RDI provides the individual with the skills needed to navigate life’s challenges on their own.We can open the door to the possibility of a greater quality of life.”
(Source: RDIconnect on facebook)
It is sometimes hard to describe what RDI is exactly. We have chosen RDI as the “main” intervention for our son and so I often find myself trying to explain it to others. One problem with this is that RDI is very qualitative instead of quantitative. Many other therapies can bring results that are charted and graphed and counted and rewarded. When Ethan was first diagnosed with autism and started the typical early intervention therapies, I fell into this pattern and started keeping a calendar of all the new words he was saying thanks to traditional speech therapy (after losing speech completely at 18 months old). I was giddy every time I was able to write down a new word! I proudly hung the calendar on our refrigerator, took pictures of it and sent it to friends and family members, and carefully and lovingly filed each one as a keepsake as the months went by. This went on through the spring and summer of 2011.
Here’s the thing, though. Ethan’s life wasn’t any better with these words I had so carefully counted. Our family life wasn’t any better with these words. When it came time for his 6-month early intervention plan review with our coordinator I realized that though he had made progress, it was not progress that was meaningful or improving our quality of life. Ethan was still withdrawn from us. He could still shock us with his extreme discontent at any moment. He still needed things to be “just so.” He still was not initiating any sort of contact with us. He still could not wait in waiting rooms for longer than 30 seconds without screaming. He still could not ride in a cart through the grocery store unless I took an exact and specific route through the aisles. If I turned around or went a different way, he screamed and screamed. We still could not play with our son unless it revolved around tickling him or singing familiar nursery rhymes. No peekaboo, no hide and seek, no joint attention with toys, no playing with toys at all actually.
I wrote in my journal that speech therapy was like chipping away at an iceberg with a toothpick. So to summarize the summer of 2011: Well, whoop-dee-doo. He can say “blue” and “star” and “tree”. Now what?
Around the time of this realization of mine, a stranger (who is now a dear friend) pointed me toward RDI, and my husband and I ended up in Amy’s office in November of that year. All it took was one discussion with her about static vs. dynamic thinking and I was totally hooked! He was already “good” at things that were repetitive and black/white, right/wrong. So – newsflash – we don’t need to spend hours and hours of therapy on things that are always the same. (Like the word for tree is always tree, the color blue is always called blue). Instead we should focus on things that are more complicated, change often, and require some internal thought process and decision making. These things are the foundation for real relationships. And a real relationship is precisely what I was desperate to have with my son.
So we began a regular RDI program in early 2012. Comparable films are taken once a year to serve as an assessment and a chance to observe and reflect. These two videos are a priceless example of what can be gained with RDI. The first was taken in early 2012 when we first began, and the second was taken a year later.
There’s one thing to note about the video (besides my weird hair). You will see us playing with the same set of drums in each video. It’s important to know that we didn’t use those drums one single time in the year that passed between the two videos, and at the time it was not a regular practice for us to play with instruments at home. So his progress was not from repetition, practice, or training with the drums. It was a spontaneous and genuine interaction!
You can almost literally see the wall between my son and I in the first video. You most certainly can feel it. And in the second video? There is love, connection, and friendship. That shaky video of the eye contact he shares with me as we drum is one of my most prized possessions in this world. If all I ever got from RDI was that moment, it would have still been worth all the effort. But of course, we’ve gained much more than that.
After watching the videos in 2013 and comparing them, I took the time to reflect on what had changed in that first year. These were my notes:
And that was only the beginning! Maybe I’ll follow up with our 2014 and 2015 films sometime soon. RDI has proven true to it’s name for us in that we immediately began Developing a Relationship with our son that was missing before. I could write for pages and pages about what this means to us as parents – and RDI is a parent based program with the goal of turning parents into better guides for their children. But Ethan’s own personal gains are just as important. His quality of life has dramatically improved, stress isn’t lurking around every corner, he can internalize a lot of situational analysis, observe and judge situations before reacting, think through the big picture of situations he’s faced with, enjoy the company of others, communicate wants and needs in meaningful ways, and has had many other improvements. The improvements are qualitative and tough to measure or chart, but they have been dramatic and life-changing.