A Mother and Her Autistic Daughter

I’ve been exchanging emails with a mother of an autistic child. Her name is Penny, and she has a blog of her own, about how she tries to teach her autistic daughter. The technique she is using seems to work – her daughter, now 11, is slowly catching up with other more “normal” kids, in terms of academic skills.

Penny tells me that when her daughter was a toddler, it was frustrating doing the normal things a parent might do. Her daughter wouldn’t look at a book being read to her. Her daughter wouldn’t pay attention to interesting toys. Penny describes it this way: there was no “shared attention” between mother and child.

I’ve written elsewhere about how “shared attention” builds a foundation for academics – though I didn’t use those words. Penny explained that an autistic child with a normal, involved parent will miss out on “shared attention”. Perhaps it’s because, as one expert told me, autistic kids respond better to what they see than to what they hear – and normal parents talk a lot to their kids.

Penny pointed out three stages kids go through as they learn math:

  • There’s a concrete stage, where math is done on real, physical objects. (See, for example, this addition game)
  • Next comes an imaginative stage, where math is done on imagined objects, and finally,
  • Kids enter the abstract stage, where math is done, and no objects need be involved.

The theory is,

  • Kids need to progress through these stages in order.
  • Before they start school, most “normal” kids have grasped a good chunk of concrete math.
  • Autistic kids, however, have not – because they tune out when their parents try to show them.

Of course, it’s not the fault of the kid that they tune out. Nor is it the fault of the frightened frustrated family, who wonders why the baby won’t read with them. Instead, it’s a difference in expectations – the autistic child and the parents have different expectations about how communication should take place. A normal parent loves to coo, chatter, sing and read to their child. To talk and point out the wonders of the worlds and the words that describe them. It’s very verbal. A normal child responds well to this. An autistic child does not.

Penny’s approach was to return to the basics. She went back, with her daughter, to the concrete learning stage – the coo and chatter stage – but without the cooing and chattering. When they closed their mouth and began to communicate in non-verbal ways, lo and behold, her daughter came out of the closet, and started responding right back. Penny said that her daughter is now slowly closing the gap – she is starting to pick up the “academics” (that is, the abstract understanding we are taught in school) even though they have not been emphasising these at all.

The technique is called Relationship Development Intervention, or RDI for short. You can read about it here. Be sure to read the article all the way through (2 pages), or you will miss the (more or less balanced) critique at the end.

When I asked Penny if I could blog about what she had been telling me, she warned me that RDI is experimental. The theory has not been proven, or even properly tested. It seems to me, though, that it’s certainly worth blogging about. Someone may read this and find that it works for them too, when nothing else did. And if, one day, the theory is tested and shown to be wrong, we may find out along the way why it did work for at least some autistic children.

One thought on “A Mother and Her Autistic Daughter”

  1. Nice description for someone just learning about it – I so appreciate your interest! šŸ™‚ Thank you, Mike!

    Giving credit where credit is due: Ruth Beechick’s books gave me the steps for how concepts of math develops. She’s been a big help to me from a developmental perspective.

    I have a couple of clarifications: One, children with autism, for whatever reason, in my opinion, aren’t *able* to interact the way typically developing children do, we parents shift the way we are with them as a coping mechanism.

    Regarding “experimental” – I don’t consider what we’re doing “experimenal”. Schools tend to, though. *SCHOOLS* often won’t do RDIĀ® (which would require a huge paradigm shift) and school staff use the excuse that it’s “experimental” that there’s little-to-no research behind it – although what they at school are doing clearly isn’t working in a lot of cases (which makes me wonder why they’re so resistant to change). There is research in the works right now and there are families all over the world using RDIĀ® with success. Additionally, RDIĀ® is a typical course of development applied to developmental delays like autism, so it is the way typcial kids establish foundations of communication (with a parent), which is not “experimental” at all.

    Here’s another article for folks if they’re interested:


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