The ability to understand the minds of others plays a significant role in our interactions with others. We need to understand that others can experience and act upon emotions, desires or thoughts if we are to understand – and respond appropriately to – their behaviour. The ability to understand others’ minds is an important part of early cognitive and social development. From birth, infants demonstrate an awareness of the minds of others by the way they initiate communication and respond to others during early social interactions. Over time, infants develop from having an awareness of emotions and intentions to understanding desires and beliefs.
Even before children can verbally express themselves, they show their understanding of other’s perceptions, emotions and intentions by using communicative gestures. By age 4, children have an adult-like understanding of states of mind – they can acknowledge different perspectives and understand that others may have beliefs that differ from their own.
In autism, the guided participation relationship has broken down and so the child has not been able to take part in the reciprocal social interaction with their caregiver that leads to the understanding of others’ minds.
In RDI, once the guiding relationship is in place, the child moves into the ‘dynamic intelligence’ curriculum. Dynamic intelligence refers to the adaptive thinking that is deployed in settings where emergent change is the norm. Dr Gutstein refers to these as ‘ "volatile" environments where new situations may emerge without notice and require immediate set-shifting. They present tasks and problems where even the most careful plans inevitably require multiple revisions, as we encounter unanticipated factors, inherent in dynamic environments.’
Mine and Philip’s current goal focuses on one of the first milestones in developing dynamic intelligence: determining the intentions behind others' actions as the primary observational reference point. We are aiming to help Philip:
- Understand that people can take the same actions with very different intentions.
- Understand that actions and motivations are not necessarily bound together.
- Recognize the diverse intentions, for which the same action may be performed (e.g. taking a walk may be for exercise, to go to the store, or just to walk).
The first lesson set by our Consultant is to recognise that we may not know why someone is doing a particular action but we can take a guess.
The challenge here for a young person with autism is to put themself in someone else’s shoes in order to infer why they may be doing what they are doing.
Philip will have mastered this lesson when he is able to come up with multiple ideas but can also integrate & grow from other people's suggestions too.
Our Consultant said the more outlandish the suggestions, the better (we get very silly with this!)
Our first session involved looking at the two different pictures below and guessing the reasons for the actions that were taking place in the pictures.
- They are late for school
- They are in a race
- They are running for a bus
- They are in trouble for throwing stones & are running away
- There's a monster / alien chasing after them
Why is the man running?
- He's late
- He doesn't like the other man
- He is trying to get away from the police
- He committed a crime (stabbed the other man)
- He is exercising
Then we moved on to watching ‘The Middle’ – a favourite TV programme of ours. Here we are looking at the DVD, stopping it at points where there is an obvious action that we can interpret.
As you can see from the clip, Philip has no problem getting into the swing of this – several of his variations are a lot more creative than any I come up with.
The feedback from our Consultant was that this illustrates exactly what we want (hooray for us!)
Our job now is to now to take it into everyday – e.g. starting by sitting in a open space & watching people around us i.e. running, walking, throwing a ball, shouting, skipping, cycling, laughing etc.
Then starting to think about things on the fly - so people standing staring at something, someone about to clean windows, someone going up a ladder/down a manhole/digging up the road - are they laying cables/doing roadworks/looking for treasure & so on.