There are many, many different special needs therapies you can try to help your special needs child lead as full a life as possible. I have tried several with Deborah, particularly the ones aimed at autistic children, of course. The first one that led to significant improvement is called Relationship Development Intervention or RDI. I believe its insights are relevant not only to parents of children with autism, but to any parent of a special needs child who wants to make the connections necessary to teach life skills.
Relationship Development Intervention is the creation of Steven Gutstein, a psychologist from Houston who specializes in working with children on the autistic spectrum. I was fortunate to attend a seminar he gave for the Autism Society of Greater Austin when Deborah was first diagnosed. He immediately struck me as someone who understood children like Deborah and was absolutely committed to reaching them any way he could. If a technique wasn’t working, you knew he’d keep at it until he found a way to help.
Dr. Gutstein’s first book, Solving the Relationship Puzzle (ISBN: 1-885477-70-8), lays out the foundation of his technique for reaching children with autism. His second book, Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children (ISBN: 1-84310-714-7), gives concrete activities to do with your child. The two together helped me a great deal with my daughter, so I will give a brief description here of the main point I learned from each one.
The first book and the seminar showed me that before I could teach any life skills to Deborah, including the all important skill of communicating with others, that I first had to deal with her inability to focus on the same things as the rest of us. She was so much in her own world that whenever I tried to teach her anything, she simply turned away because it was meaningless to her. She was not able to share “joint attention” with another person (in other words, being able to focus on the same things as others). In other words, I couldn’t teach her the alphabet until I solved the deeper problem of her unique perspective and lack of joint attention with me. Since she couldn’t bridge the gap between us herself, I learned that I was going to have to find a way to change what I was doing to accommodate her unusual point of view. While that knowledge in and of itself didn’t solve any problems, it set me on a better path. At least I knew what I had to do and it wasn’t going to be just spending more time on academics.
In the second book, Gutstein lays out a large number of activities aimed at helping the sort of fundamental problems with relating to others that Deborah was having. We used many of his games and saw an immediate change in Deborah’s response to us. Whereas before she would basically ignore us, she suddenly began paying attention to us and joining in with us. It was small at first, but such a big change that we were extremely excited. While we never instituted Gutstein’s full program due to other constraints in the family, his approach became a mainstay in my approach to Deborah and helped her learn many life skills. I can recommend it to other parents.
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