Sunday, 16 January 2011

Memories of competence

We just got some feedback from our RDI Consultant on something great that happended during a pre-Christmas RDI session that Dixon was doing with Philip.

They were wrapping Christmas presents together.  Philip said (to himself as much as to Dixon) “Lets make it a square”.  When it was clear that a square was an appropriate shape to cut the wrapping paper in which to wrap the present, he followed his discovery with, “Ah….that’s a good idea”. 

This is a significant step forward, as it shows that Philip is spotlighting his competence for himself.  He’s feeling good about what he’s doing and the ideas he’s having without someone needing to tell him that he should feel good about his thoughts and actions.

It means he is using previous experiences in the here and now.

I haven’t ever heard him do that before....and I can tell you, I'm pretty chuffed with it :):)  This shows me that the work we’ve been doing on spotlighting competence and developing episodic memory has been effective.

Episodic (or personal, autobiographical memory) occurs when we remember an event along with its personal meaning, where the personal meaning of an action or event is more important than the action or event itself.  Episodic memory allows us to learn from our experiences and to anticipate and plan for future events.

In RDI, we use ‘spotlighting’ to increase the odds of this personal meaning being perceived and captured during an activity.  So in the past, when me and Philip have been doing something together, our interaction will have been punctuated by 'spotlights' from me, commenting on Philip's competence in resolving a challenge or repairing a breakdown.

This picture captured an episodic memory event for Philip.  We'd set ourselves the challenge of piling all the items on the Buckaroo donkey's head (they are usually hung on the saddle, if you're not familiar with the game).  It required a lot of fiddly balancing and precarious positioning, but we managed it and I spotlighted our joint competence by saying something like, "Oh wow - we did it!"

Both Dixon and I  have participated in hours and hours of joint activity where we have continually spotlighted Philip's competence.  Philip has now discovered naturally how to spotlight his own competence for himself because we have taken him back through all the developmental steps that he missed out on when autism derailed him from the path of typical development.

You can see from this how the guided participation relationship (GPR - see previous blogs) acts as the framework for learning.  Typically developing children spend hours in the early years (baby and toddler-hood) being the 'apprentice' to the adult's 'guide'; being supported to make their own discoveries, resolve challenges and make repairs, and having their success spotlighted by their care-givers.  This is how episodic memory develops naturally.  In RDI, because children have veered off the typical path of development, we make that natural, implicit process explicit, setting up situations (and spontaneously spotting situations in everyday interactions) that we can use to spotlight competence.

One of the reasons that children with autism have low frustration tolerance and 'meltdowns' is thet they haven't developed a bank of episodic memories to use as a reference point to help them to work out what to do.

We cope with setbacks and challenges and learn from mistakes by drawing on our episodic memory of experiences that are ‘similar but different’ to the current situation, to help us decide what to do. Research shows that this special kind of memory is impaired in autism.

In RDI, we use a range of activities that incorporate small challenges, which the child can repair or resolve.  We can then subtly highlight the child’s competence in managing these challenges. This highlighting helps the development of episodic memory, which provides a reference point in future when presented with similar challenges….promoting the ability to learn from mistakes, and to develop resilience and self esteem.

Philip has now got to the stage where he has been able to internalise the spotlighting we have been doing for him.  This means his resilience is improving and I have to tell you that whilst I am writing this, I am shedding a small tear of joy at this wonderful achievement.


  1. I so enjoyed reading this and am also thrilled for you that Philip is making such lovely progress. Way to go Zoe! :)

  2. Thanks Zoe - one of the clearest explanations of the development and importance of episodic memory that I have seen and I particularly liked:

    "One of the reasons that children with autism have low frustration tolerance and 'meltdowns' is thet they haven't developed a bank of episodic memories to use as a reference point to help them to work out what to do." I will be getting parents to refer to this, thanks again!

  3. Dear Zoe,
    I am so pleased to have found your blog. You have a wonderful way of sharing information about RDI principles with your real life experiences. As an RDI consultant, I would like to share your blog with other parents. I would also like to see you inform the parents on the RDI Learning System about your blog. Are you Zoe who is helping to organize the conference in the UK on the social and emotional development in autism on April 28? It sounds like a great event. Wishes for continued success!
    Terry Dennis

  4. @ Brendan - thanks for your kind comments.

    @ Terry - hello, yes, I am conference Zoe. Please do go ahead and share my blog with other parents. I posted about the blog on both the Parent and Consultant Forums (I am a CiT) about a week ago....only I erroneously posted the one on the Consultant Forum under the heading 'Spanish materials' (!!) so maybe I should post it again.
    Thanks for your support Terry - share away :)