Making unexpected choices

My RDI activity at the moment is to try and encourage Ellen to make surprising, rather than predictable choices.  Of course this is quite a biggy for someone with autism, who finds reassurance in the familiar.


Ellen powering off to the cafe

We were on a bit of a loser from the start when Ellen chose to visit Whipsnade Zoo, one of her favourite haunts.  An early surprise was to arrive and find the place invaded by cubs (and not the furry kind).  The scout movement is celebrating its 100th birthday, so celebrations around the country for them and sidestepping around excitable groups of seven-year-olds for us.

Ellen has a very set agenda when visiting the zoo:-

(a) Go to the gift shop to purchase an overpriced toy animal to look around the zoo with her.   The lady behind the till greets us like old friends and doesn’t require us to get our membership card out any more.  If we are lucky, we can leave without Ellen trying to buy ‘a friend’ as well.

(b) Visit the bug centre (despite the fact that it is closing and slowly being emptied of all bugs).

(c) Bypass the bird show (should it be on).  Today it was full of cubs which meant that my efforts to change her mind on this choice were minimal.

(d) Walk on via the underwater Sealion viewing area and hang around hopefully near the cafeteria hoping that it’s time for lunch (it wasn’t).

(e) Hopes dashed, either visit tigers and elephants or giraffes and zebras (today was option 2).

(f) Decide that lunch must be on the cards by now and walk as fast as she possibly can back to the cafe, leaving me trailing in her wake.  All attempts at experience sharing; ‘ooh the flamingos are out’ and ‘is that an ostrich or an emu?’ studiously ignored.

(g) Once inside the cafe, order sausage and chips (additional vegetables are frowned upon), a strawberry flavoured drink and a slab of chocolate cake.

(h) Go home.

My attempts to get Ellen to choose something surprising went like this –

Me: ‘mashed potato or chips?’
Ellen: ‘chips’.
Me: ‘Fish cakes or sausages’
Ellen: ‘sausages’
Me: ‘pizza or sausages’
Ellen: ‘she said sausages!’


That was an easy choice!

In fact the only surprising choice of the day was made by one of the giraffes, who decided he was thirsty and rather than drink water, chose instead to take a gulp from another giraffe’s stream of urine.

Ellen of course, thoroughly approved of this piece of dynamic thinking.




Scribblings of difference

We visit Tring Museum quite a lot.  It’s hard to answer the welcoming ‘have you been here before?’ in a neutral tone.  Oh yes, we’ve been here before and we have a very set routine.

First phase – visit the gift shop.  Unfortunately Ellen is very keen on the display of plastic animals that they sell there and today she bought the white tiger.

‘Oh you must have quite a collection of these at home’ says the sales assistant, presumably recognising us from our previous excursions.

‘We’ve got elephant, orange tiger, lion, rhino, giraffe, zebra and hippo…’ chants Ellen.

‘We must get a few more in then and stock up’ smiles the sales assitant.

‘Please don’t’ I reply, thinking of the groaning shelves back at home.

Second phase.  A very slow and detailed walk around the galleries, with Ellen pointing out all the creatures of interest to her new purchase, in this case, white tiger.

But today I’m going to disrupt this routine and throw a curve ball into Ellen’s familiar pattern.  In RDI speak this is called ‘same but different’.  We’re doing the same thing that we normally do, but changing it ever so slightly.  The aim is to slowly build Ellen’s resilliance and help her cope more easily with the inevitable fluctuations of daily living.

So, ‘Let’s draw our favourite animal’ I say.

‘I don’t think so’ replies Ellen in a sing-song voice, deep in conversation with her white tiger about his friend orange tiger.

Undeterred I set up the stools by the tigers, get out the paper and pencils and I wait.  This is the beauty of RDI.  I have learned that simply waiting is a powerful tool.  After only a few seconds and without any further argument, Ellen comes and sits down.  After a little bit of time positioning white tiger, Ellen gets to work drawing the orange tiger.  I am instructed to draw the Jaguar, which I can only half see due to the glass partitioning.  It is the experience not the end result, I chant internally, flushing when passing visitors curiously peer over my shoulder to look and then veer away as if physically repelled by my amateurish scribblings.IMG_5226[1]

This is Ellen’s drawing (I’m afraid ‘Jaguar with partition’ is not on display at this moment in time).



I know I’m biased, but I love it.


Making friends with a skeleton

We had a letter from our local doctor’s surgery a few months ago, inviting Ellen for an ‘annual health check’.  I read this letter with a mixture of surprise, pleasure and absolute dread.

Surprise, because it seemed to me that for once, the NHS was being proactive.  Ellen hasn’t been to the doctors for about ten years, but I was fully expecting another ten if not more before an invitation such as this arrived on the doormat.

Pleasure, because I was aware that this would be a perfect opportunity for Ellen to experience going to the doctors without the added pressure of actually being unwell.  In my mind’s eye I could see all the social story preparations preparations and the experience sharing afterwards which would be so beneficial to Ellen’s RDI journey.

The dread was because, as anyone who cares for someone with special needs will know, they can be somewhat unpredictable.  The last time I remember being in the doctors surgery, she took some I’ve been to the doctor stickers off his desk and stuck them on a photograph of his two daughters.  Right over their faces.  Yup.


Ellen checking in

But he’ll have forgotten about that – hopefully – and despite answering every question he asked her with ‘car‘, Ellen submitted to the examination pretty well.  By pretty well I mean that he managed to listen to her heart and lungs and examine a small cyst she has under her eye.  She point-blank refused to have her blood pressure taken (even over her jumper) and bent forward, covering her arms over her stomach when he asked whether he could examine it – fantastic non-verbal communication!

Her refusals weren’t helped by his poor choice of expressive language.  Doctors will (despite prior briefing) insist on beginning every sentance with ‘would you mind if I...? Which obviously gives truculent patients the perfect opportunity to answer ‘no‘ at every turn, thus immediately stymying the doctor.  Much better to open with ‘Now I’m going to.….’ but they never do, it’s obviously not in the training.

Still, I think it was a pretty successful visit.  Ellen particularly enjoyed putting a Santa hat on the model skeleton and putting it in different poses, and as there were no stickers in sight, the rest of the office remained unmolested.  This time anyway.


Happy Christmas !



Sleeping Yoga

Today Ellen and I went for a taster yoga session.  This involved a great deal of preparation, including stocking up on plenty of carbs before the workout.


Preparing for the workout ahead

Ellen did some yoga at school a few years ago and often ‘strikes a pose’ being surprisingly flexible for one who’s inclination tends towards the sedentary.

Lynn is a very experienced teacher of yoga for children and those with special needs and she let Ellen have a good look around the studio before we started our taster session.  I filled in the obligatory information form and then we removed our shoes to step into the studio.  Ellen sat and watched as Lynn and I moved through a few basic moves (including three ‘ommmmm’ chants at the beginning) but then obviously lost interest in us and seemed to wander off towards the door.

Not to worry, she had just decided she was more comfortable with her shoes on.  Again Lynn was fine with this and praised Ellen when she returned, shoes on, for her standard legs apart hands on hips pose ‘good idea Ellen, let’s do some side bends’ she encouraged.  Ellen did join in, even with the Tree pose, until then she had an unfortunate mishap related to the monthly female condition and obviously felt rather uncomfortable.  Another small interruption followed whilst Ellen went to the loo, but with no change of clothes available, even I was beginning to wonder what on earth would happen next…

However, Lynn remained warm and inclusive throughout the session, nothing Ellen and I could throw at her rocked her from her yogic calm.  Finally, we reached the relaxation stage, which was obviously Ellen’s favourite as she stayed in it long after Lynn and I had got up, chatted, got coats on and were ready to leave.  Ellen’s verdict…? She’d like to go again….hopefully Lynn will not have left the country…


Peace at last


Jewellery Making

Ellen was lucky enough to be given some great craft sets for Christmas and no doubt we’ll be working our way through them all over the upcoming weeks and months.  Given the choice of which to start with, she rather surprisingly chose her new jewellery making kit.  Surprising because of everything she received, this looked the most challenging.

I soon found out why she chose it though, as the projects leaflet inside the box contained pictures of tiger and zebra earrings and pendants.  Without hesitation, Ellen chose to make the zebra necklace.

This involved rolling out thin pieces of alternate black and white clay, sprinkling them with water and then pressing them together firmly by rolling a cup over the top.  It was a great activity for our current RDI objective, because there were bits that she found really difficult, like moulding the hard clay between her fingers to soften it up, but also bits that she found much easier – like rolling the clay into long sausages.  I was therefore able to use my ‘easy’ ‘a bit tricky’ and ‘difficult’ prompts fairly evenly thoughout.

Ellen has sensory issues surrounding her fingers and didn’t like the feel of the clay, so she tried using a pair of gloves initially, but when these proved too cumbersome she took them off.  I found this quite encouraging as it seemed like her desire to make the jewellery was stronger than her sensory issues.


Ellen making a hole in the zebra clay

After rolling with the cup, we then had to cut out two shapes, one 2p-sized and the other 1p-sized, before making holes for the thread and then putting the pieces in the oven to bake.

I have to continually remind myself not to step in and over-compensate for Ellen, it’s very difficult not to try and improve things and make them perfect.  This is Ellen’s necklace and it needs to look like her necklace!


The clay’s ready for the oven!

The second half of the production process was much trickier, in fact it almost defeated me.  Our RDI advisor had asked me ‘what does Ellen do when she find things overwhelming?’, well the answer is she tries to walk off and leave me to it!  Getting the pendant threaded was fine but trying to fix the clasp to the end was almost impossible with the result that I pretty much took over.  Looking back what I probably should have done was abandon the instructions and instead had a discussion with Ellen about an easier way to finish off – i.e. just tie a knot in the flippin thing!  However, we perservered and it did give me the opportunity, many times, to say how difficult this bit was, but even so how we managed get it done in the end and I think you’ll agree it does very much look like Ellen’s own work!


Me modelling the finished product!

When we’d finished, we trekked off to McDonalds for Ellen’s weekly fix of a plain cheesburger and large fries.  One downside of her increased confidence in doing her own ordering is that she’s started adding some ‘unexpected items’, like today’s chocolate muffin.  Very happy with her illicit purchase, she laid out the cheeseburger, muffin and chips in that order on her lap in the car and proceded to eat them together as one meal – yuck!


Back in Perspective

We’ve had a six week break from RDI as daughter No. 2’s engagement with GCSE exams proved to be rather hostile for all involved – never mind learning how to modify your speech for an autistic child, there needs to be a communication guide for parents of an exam-stressed teenager.  In short – if you must engage in conversation – put a flak jacket on first!

Thankfully, a cease-fire having been declared (exams finally finishing), it was time to dust off the video camera and the imagination and plan a new activity around our current objective.  Perspective taking.

Ellen has shown many times her own individual perspective; at the weekend I was involved in the Circus-themed village fete and had manned my stall dressed as Marcel Marceau – however to Ellen I was a Zebra pure and simple.  She even made me a bracelet saying Zebra!

Zebra and Tiger at the Village Fete

Zebra and Tiger at the Village Fete

However, we are trying to test whether or not Ellen realises that different people may have a different view of the same thing, and that these views are equally valid.  She seems to have a burgeoning realisation of this; she will turn a book to show me if I say I can’t see something, and we had fun with blotto painting a few weeks ago.  We both, however needed to get back into the swing of planned engagements and so I picked what I thought would be a fairly simple task – to make animal faces out of coloured dough.

Do you know what it is yet?

Do you know what it is yet?

Unfortunately the dough was rock hard and even I struggled to mould it into shape. Mindful that the actual making of the faces wasn’t the main focus of the engagement, I did help Ellen roll and shape her pieces of dough.  Mine was going to be a zebra but Ellen nicked all the stripes off it telling me as she did so that it was going to be a panda. I’m not sure she’s quite grasped the idea that my perspective is ‘equally valid’!

What surprised me the most about the activity was not how easily we both slipped back into our familiar roles, but that on a couple of occasions Ellen used language in a more imaginative than purely functional way.  I had a go at guessing that the squashed black and yellow face at the top of the picture was a fish and rather than just saying ‘no it’s a lion’, Ellen to my astonishment said ‘it’s much better than that’ 🙂 .

The real Marcel

The real Marcel

look familiar?

look familiar?

Perhaps that’s how she felt about Marcel and the Zebra….can’t say I disagree!


Making cakes … for birds!

You may have noticed that Ellen has an obsession with cakes at the moment.  Well – with eating them anyway.  I thought I’d harness this enthusiasm and on the RDI ‘same but different’ theme have a go at making some bird seed cakes with her.

I found a very simple recipe on the RSPB website http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/families/children/makeanddo/activities/birdcake.aspx and set about planning the activity, using a new planning template which helps me to really focus on my current objective (which is for Ellen to notice and react to my level of engagement).

I wanted this to be a real experience sharing activity that with a focus on mutual enjoyment; so I made sure that all the ingredients and tools were out on the table in advance – I didn’t want to dilute the objective by spending time collecting the items together.  This proved to be a wise move, although stabbing the yoghurt pots with a pencil to create a hole (as the method suggests) failed miserably and so I had to shuffle off at one point for some sissors, but only after Ellen and I had had a good laugh at the concertainering pots!

Ellen enthusiastically filling the yoghurt pots

Ellen enthusiastically filling the yoghurt pots

It turned out be be a great activity:-

1. Ellen not only noticed when I yawned and sighed (to indicate my waning enthusiasm) but she immediately pretended to squirt me with water to wake me up.

2. I hadn’t expected her to handle the suet/bird seed mix at all as she dislikes getting her hands messy, but with the gloves on she did attempt it.

3. It was quite a long activity – 25 minutes – and she remained engaged throughout and even stayed on to make a human cake with me afterwards (although that is perhaps not so surprising given her current cake addiction).

In fact, the whole thing went so well that I suggested to Ellen that we play a joke on Daddy.

‘Ask him if he would like a delicious slice of cake’ I suggested, ‘he’ll say “yes please”, but instead of giving him a slice of chocolate cake you could put one of the bird seed cakes on a plate and give it to him!’

Ellen looked at me as if I were mad ‘you can’t give Dad a bird cake’ she said ‘he is not a bird’.  I couldn’t fault her logic.  Ellen does like a joke, but her sense of humour is more slapstick than practical.  Perhaps it’s the whole autism Sally-Anne thing going on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally%E2%80%93Anne_test – or perhaps she just thinks that her mother is rather strange….?

Of course by the time the bird seed cakes had cooled in the fridge Ellen had completely lost interest in them and although she did eventually come out into the garden with me to hang them up, she made it very clear that she would rather be watching Arnold telling Max on the Tweenies that his face is like a squashed tomato….at least she’s stopped telling me that my face is like a squashed tomato…for now.

Spot the home-made bird feeders...

Spot the home-made bird feeders…