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 !



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!


Thank you from Jackpot Heffalump

Like most parents, once the Christmas rush is over and I have hoovered the last pine needle from the carpet, the last remaining festive task is to organise the kids to write their thank-you letters.  I heard someone on the radio recently saying that if children write regularly every year, by the time they are 17 it will have become a habit and you can send them off into the adult world, your etiquette coaching complete.

Not in this house.  My 16 year old daughter has evolved in a world of social media and emojis and finds expressing thanks through the written word totally alien.  Ellen, who is now  19 (19!) struggles with not only formulating the proper sentances but also with the motor skills required to write on a large scale.


So, this year I tried something different.  I typed up several versions of ‘thank you’ sentences, some complete, some with the endings missing and some with nothing at all except ‘To’ or ‘Dear’.  I laid these out on the table with a selection of cards, different coloured pens, glue and a pair of scissors.

Planning this as an RDI activity, with the focus being on Easy vs Challenging vs Overwhelmed, I tried to provide a range of options which would give Ellen the chance to experience all three.

Whether because of the planning or still being on a high after the Christmas and Birthday season, Ellen was in a super mood and took to this activity with gusto.  It was interesting to see that initially she chose the cut-outs with the most complete sentances with the trickiest part being inserting the card into the envelope.  By the end of the session however, she was doing more and more writing, and even wrote the last card without any cut-out at all – impressive.  But Ellen being Ellen, her sense of humour began to take over and cards were being personalised in a rather unique way…notice anything unusual about the one below…?


Beverley gets thanked by Hide and Seek woozle

Yes… Ellen thought it was hilarious to take on various heffalump and woozle personas to sign off the cards – a different one every time.   Luckily all the receipients are well aware of Ellen’s penchant for disguise and I’m sure will take this all in their stride.

Happy New Year to one and all!


Well, that was easy!


Raspberry Rippled

We’ve had a few weeks off Ellensdays over the summer and although Ellen doesn’t start college again until Monday, our RDI-focused activity days have begun again with a vengence.  Today we had a quadruple experience; not only did Ellen do her regular twenty minute job in the local shop and enjoy her weekly trip to McDonalds (doing excellent ordering) but we also made raspberry ripple icecream – from scratch http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1508665/raspberry-ripple-ice-cream.

I came at the idea backwards.  Ellen loves visiting the local PYO farm in June to gather strawberries, so I looked to see what was in season at the moment and discovered that raspberries are apparently available into October.  Sure enough, they had plenty and by the time Ellen and I had worked ourselves up and down one row we had a punnet each of gorgeous raspberries and we only ate the ones that squashed as we pulled them off the plant – honest guv! Ellen loved it and apparently next week we’re going back for cucumbers…

The pickings

The pickings

I found a good recipe which didn’t require an ice-cream machine and said it was simple enough to make with children.

I’ve never made ice-cream before and assembling the ingredients I can now see exactly why in large quantities it’s no good for the wasteline. Eggs, double cream and sugar appeared to be the main ingredients with the raspberries seeming rather incidental to the whole thing.  With puppies intermittently racing around the kitchen and Ellen continually asking me why I didn’t have any socks on (I had stepped in puppy wee – an occupational habit at the moment) we mixed the coronary-clogging brew.

Things went fairly smoothly until Ellen misinterpreted (whether deliberately or not I’m still not entirely sure) my instruction to put the bowl containing the sugar and the eggs on TOP of the pan of boiling water and poured the whole lot INTO the pan instead.  It was a moment which would have fitted right in to the Great British Bake Off.  After a few moments of surveying the scene whilst doing my very best to remain calm (remembering I was filming the whole thing for RDI) I dumped the entire lot down the sink and we started again.  At least it gave Ellen more practise at cracking eggs – in the end we got through a whopping 12 of them.

The second batch was completed without further incident.  The result was a totally trashed kitchen but a product which lookied remarkably raspberry ripple like – although it hasn’t yet competed its six hours in the freezer and is as yet untasted.

The finished product!

The finished product!

As a slight aside, here’s an updated picture of the puppies for those dog lovers amongst you – it’s been seven weeks since they were born – and it took five and a half weeks for Ellen to acknowledge their existence and allow one on her lap, but they are now so much part of the family that it will be hard to see them go to their new homes over the next few weeks.  Luckily we are keeping one – Brian

Brian is furthest on the right

Brian is furthest on the right





Visiting Tiggywinkles – in a monsoon

Ellen at the entrance to Tiggywinkles

Ellen at the entrance to Tiggywinkles

With my uncanny knack of picking the wettest and windiest days to do outdoor activities, today we visited St Tiggywinkles in Haddenham http://www.sttiggywinkles.org.uk/.  The car park was empty when we arrived and it was hard to find a piece of it which was not under water.  Not surprisingly we were the only visitors – so there’s always a silver lining.  They even have umbrellas you can borrow.

Tiggywinkles is a wildlife hospital that started in one man’s house around 35 years ago and is now, according to the slogan the ‘world’s busiest wildlife hospital’.  Today (or to be more precise 29 Jan when they last counted) they had a total 640 wild animals and birds receiving free care.  We saw about three.

I’m sorry that’s not true – it was at least twenty…  There is an outdoor trail where you can see some of the wild animals recovering, but understandably enough in the freezing downpour most of them were sheltering in their houses.  My umbrella was in danger of turning inside out as we battled down the path!  We did see some Red Kite’s very close up and they have a small indoor display about the Red Kites and all the various injuries which have befallen them – the strangest story was the one about the bird which was found in a garden covered in what smelled like cooking oil!  They tried washing it twice in washing up liquid but the oil wouldn’t come off and in the end they had to look after it until it moulted.

The fox was sensibly staying in it's shelter

The fox was sensibly staying in its shelter

Ah notice Ellen is carrying a large hippo toy.  While I was paying our entrance fee and sorting out Ellen’s activity sheet, she was busy perusing the limited gift shop.  It may have been limited but she still found a soft toy – and a big one at that!  Hippo wanted to come and look at the animals with us, so I coughed up another £3 for the privilege. I have to say none of the coughing up feels too bad when you know it’s all going to a good cause.

My RDI target for the next few weeks is to try to, and I quote, “effectively slow down your typical Experience-Sharing process to the point where you can consciously experience the typically sub-conscious, rapid adjustments you and other participants must make on an on-going basis” – got that?  So as we walked around the rain-sodden paths I limited myself to short statements.  ‘That bird is huge’ and ‘That bird has a broken wing’ etc.  Ellen didn’t say much in reply – or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the wind – but she and hippo were taking it all in.

Apart from the Red Kites and some ducks, there wasn’t a great deal to see outside so we went indoors where they have display cases of wild animal skeletons and the world’s only Hedgehog Memorabilia Museum.  This contained everything and anything with a hedgehog link including aeroplanes, coats of arms, knitting patterns, church plasterwork and figurines.  Our of everything there, the item Ellen was most interested in was a Bob the Builder puzzle – the hedgehog link? – he saves the hedgehogs from being squashed by Roly the steamroller…

The World's only Hedgehog Memorabilia Museum

The World’s only Hedgehog Memorabilia Museum

But the biggest hit of the whole visit was the mammal nursery, where baby hedgehogs/squirrels/voles and other small mammals are nursed back to health.  Most of them were asleep under towels but one hedgehog was obviously confused about the time of day, and much to Ellen’s delight was scrabbling in and out of his blanket, eating food and trying to escape through the bars.  We were so long at the window (at least 45 minutes) that I felt our patience was rewarded when one of the volunteers came along and began hand-feeding some tiny baby voles.  It’s a pity we were separated by the glass because I would have liked to ask her how the baby voles had been rescued – they would not have survived long in the wild without their mother, and let’s face it must have been hard to spot.  Apart from feeding, I had no idea until today how important the ‘toileting’ of small mammals is.  If they are not ‘toileted’ they can die, and I watched fascinated as the volunteer gently rubbed a cotton wool bud over the vole’s bottom, simulating how its mother would have cleaned it.  So tiny was the vole that it had to be fed by a tiny paintbrush dipped in warmed milk.  That’s dedication for you!

Ellen entranced by the injured hedgehog

Ellen entranced by the injured hedgehog

The rain was still lashing down when it was time to leave.  I was quite looking forward to a cup of coffee in the cafe, but I obviously hadn’t read the website clearly enough as although they serve coffee, the only places to sit are outside – mmm perhaps not.  But the lady on the front desk assured me that if we come back in the Spring there will be much more to see (more baby animals) and do (crafts at half-term) so we may well do that.  After all we didn’t manage to complete the activity sheet and anyway I’d really like to get a closer look at that hedgehog jumper knitting pattern…