Episodic Memory and Autism (part3)

Image result for you and me equals us Click to view part one and part two
Research informs us that in typical development the foundations for episodic memory are formed in infancy through everyday parent-child interactions that take place naturally within their relationship.  Similarly, research indicates that the parent-child relationship, when the child is on the autistic continuum, is disrupted.  Within RDI this relationship is referred to as the ‘Guided Participation Relationship’.  The founders of RDI Dr Gutstein and Dr Sheely, label this disruption as a ‘Lack of Growth Seeking’ which prevents the child from being motivated to learn that ‘you and me = us’, through:

  • seeking and sharing experiences with their parent
  • looking to their parent when they are unsure of how to do something, or just need some encouragement to continue
  • naturally observing what their parent is doing within their environment to enhance their own learning
  • exploring and experimenting with objects with their parent
  • synchronising their actions with their parent.
Forming emotion laden memories through ‘You and Me = Us’

In Part 1 it was stressed that to gain emotion laden memorie

  •  It is crucial that the child has an active hands-on role both within the encoding and retrieval of memory stages.
  •  The encoding is the child’s own experience of ‘I’m physically and mentally here at this point in time, these are my emotions and this is my own experience of being in this interactive engagement’.

The early stages of the RDI Family Consultation Programme concentrates on helping parents to slow down and create opportunities for the child to take an active role within the parent-child interactions.  It is highly important that the foundation of ‘you & me = us’ is firmly in place.  To ensure this is happening it is recommended that no matter what age, whether co-occurring conditions are or are not diagnosed, that the parent strips everything back to resemble the early parent-child interactions that occur in the early stages of typical development.  This can be a lot easier to do with a younger child where you can use anticipation games such as ‘Peek-a-boo’; ‘Round the garden’; clapping games; hand games; ‘row your boat’; starting to lift your child then pausing as if they are too heavy and waiting for them to emotionally connect, or give a bodily signal, to invite you to continue; or holding onto a swing, to allow your child to give that emotional or physical response, before letting go.  

However, it can be a little trickier with an older child / young adult.  This is where an RDI Consultant would be able to help parents to think through what could be used to activate a ‘come back for more’ level of motivation for their child, that is based on a combination of age and developmental readiness.  Like the activities listed for younger children, the aim is for all interactions to be primarily used to encourage experience and emotion sharing between parent and child.

Once the beginning of experience and emotion sharing between parent and child is happening, on a regular basis, you can evolve onto ‘you, me & it’.  With ‘it’ being an object.  For instance, throwing a ball back and forth, playing a board game, a game like Jenga, taking turns to stir / add an ingredient when cooking etc.  Of note the ‘me & you = us’ is still the primary focus of RDI and it is important to not get lost in the task.

I hear you ask, ‘but how does this relate to the formation of emotional meaningful memories?’  The activities have a natural repeating pattern beneath them of for instance, ‘my turn, your turn’, where you each step into your role.  The aim is for the child to start to recognise the ‘same but different’ aspect and over time naturally take on their role without any additional need for prompting.  This is due to the child beginning to form memories of ‘this is like when we did, so I can do….’  At the heart of every activity the parent and child engage in is the formation of a feel of a joint experience and ongoing experience sharing, which will enable the child to start to encode the emotions shared between themselves and their parent across activities.  That is a very simplistic way of explaining it, when in actual fact the parent plays a much bigger role.  With the help of an RDI Consultant the parent will learn to plan the pattern of the interactions.  They will learn how to minimise distractions.  They will learn how to trust in themselves, but also in their child.  Most importantly they will learn how to measure just the right amount of help that they need to put in place, where their expectations of their child’s capability to carry out a role are not too high, or too low.  This is called ‘Scaffolding’.  Their child has to feel a little challenged but not overwhelmed.  

An RDI Consultant will also help parents to learn what they need to make stand out from the rest of the interaction for the child to encode their ‘I can’ or ‘we can’ memories.  This is called ‘Spotlighting’.  The combination of scaffolding and spotlighting is what will enable the ‘I can’ or ‘we can’ emotion laden memories to be formed.  These memories of competence are the beginning of the encoding which forms the child’s motivation to want to come back for more of the same.  The competence memories lead to resilience and an increasing want to be part of ever greater, more challenging and unpredictable spotlighted and scaffolded opportunities.

As the RDI parent-child relationship grows, the expectation is for the child to increasingly become more competent and at that point the parent lessens the amount of control they have over the interaction and encourages the child to do more decision making and problem solving.  For instance, if we are looking at a ‘co-regulation’ (synchronising actions) goal, that could be inviting the child to add variations to how they should pass a ball back and forth; or inviting the child to make the decision on when the cake mixture is ‘good enough’, or if it needs to be stirred further to get the right consistency; when to start or stop an action; when to change the speed of an action to degrees of faster or slower and so on.  It might also be encouraging the child to take on more responsibility, such as using a knife, cracking an egg etc.  Within that transfer of responsibility an RDI Consultant would be looking at helping the parent to also aid their child to recognise that they can repair interaction breakdowns.  That may initially be as simple as fetching the ball if it goes out of play, slowing down the speed they are stirring if the mixture is spilling and so on.  In each case scaffolding and spotlighting, at just the right point, are crucial to continue to encode ‘feel good, I can’ emotion laden memories.

Sharon Bradbrook-Armit
RDI Certified Consultant
Thinking in Shades of Grey Ltd
UK, Europe

Kathy Darrow
RDI Certified Consultant


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