Talking With Michael

Nate and I have been practicing our RDI techniques and trying to change the way we communicate with Michael.  It’s like an exercise in breaking our brains, because we have to think so incredibly hard and then change the way we naturally talk to him.  Not only are we trying to change what we say, but we’re working on how we say it.

Most of how we communicate with Michael is instrumental.  “Do you want a snack?”  “It’s time to go to the bathroom.”  “What movie do you want to watch?”  It’s all simple, programmed, and scripted.  There are no surprises, Michael fills in the blanks, and off we go.  When we move away from the script, Michael just walks away and refuses to engage because there’s no script for him.  As our RDI consultant explained, his brain doesn’t think about things, it just operates on pre-programmed responses.

Our goal is to get Michael to connect with others on an emotional level, to share an experience with someone else, not simply be next to them with the ability to execute a social script.  We have to stretch and grow his neural pathways by modeling experience sharing while doing new activities.  While I totally get the theory, this is very hard for me to do, simply because I too have been trained into ruts by Michael’s autism.

For example, let’s say I was reading a book with Michael.  In a typical situation, I could point to a picture of a car and say “What’s that?”  or “What color is the car?”  Michael’s very good at this stuff, so he can answer correctly if he wants to, but just because he can respond correctly to a request for information doesn’t mean we have connected over something.  It doesn’t matter to him who asked the question or why.  With our new techniques, I could simply look at the page and say (with an overly dramatized voice) “Wow!  I love that car!”  or “My favorite color is red.”  I have now shared my feelings (while modeling vocal emotion) with Michael without putting any pressure on him by requesting information back.  Then I sit and wait.  This is new to him, and he may or may not return with his own experience.  Our consultant reminds us that is OK right now.  The goal is to change how we relate to him.  He’ll eventually get there.

So after this technical post (sorry, I just find this stuff incredibly fascinating), I have to report that after just a week or two of modeling new communication, Michael is slowly changing.  I’ve noticed he has moments where he is a little more willing to adapt his communication instead of just leaving a conversation that has gone into new territory.  The biggest moment I had was two days ago.  I had gotten him a special book out of the library about outer space.  It came with a CD that had music and read the book aloud to him, which he totally loved and asked for an instant replay.  After the CD had played through twice, he was still sitting at the table just leafing through the pages.  I walked past him and announced, “I love outer space,” and waited to see if he would do anything with that bit of emotional information.  He never looked at me, but he picked up the book and said in a very strange voice, “This is my favorite book.”

Now let’s just blow right past the fact that I had no idea Michael even knew the word “favorite” or what it meant.  His tone of voice was very odd and stilted.  See, because his speech is so programmed, he always delivers the same lines with the same intonation.  Since he’s usually reciting something from a parent or a movie, he has memorized the emotional intonation that goes with each phrase.  They always sound the same.  When he said, “This is my favorite book,” he awkwardly stumbled through it, and I truly believe it was because it was an original thought to which he was trying to apply his own emotions.

This is a HUGE deal, and I am so excited about it!!! (See?  Lots of exclamation points!)  I know this is going to be a slow and arduous work.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  But it’s awesome to see this little bursts of light along the way, and it reminds me why we’re doing what we’re doing.

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