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.




Dusting off the SEN System

I had a meeting at Ellen’s college this morning all about the new ECH Plans, which from September 1 this year are gradually replacing Statements of Special Educational Need.  Whilst my friend and I both felt that all the professionals creating reports and attending meetings would probably be better off actually spending time with our young people, neither do we want to be left out!  The whole process sounds time-consuming and a paperwork nightmare but it does get all the relevant people together to talk about the young person, their aspirations (beyond McDonalds and DVD-watching apparently) and how to give them the best education to prepare them for their future lives.  If it manages to create any kind of joined up thinking between the various departments – even within the local council – I’ll be phoning up to request Ellen’s assessment tomorrow!

Whilst I was having all this fun, Ellen was out with a new carer at Whipsnade zoo.  Ellen’s been going to the zoo for around fifteen years and has a fairly strict order around the animals – Discovery Centre (spiders and snakes), then tigers, possibly elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebras and home.  Imagine my surprise when the new carer said how much fun they’d had feeding the bears and watching the chimps being fed.  Bears?! I queried, feeling as surprised as if she’d told me one of the Teletubbies had served them lunch.  Ellen was smiling away, loving my discomposure.  It just goes to show that some of her routines are more carer-based than autism-based.

Fun with the dusting ;-)

Fun with the dusting 😉

I had a very stimulating activity all lined up for the afternoon – dusting off the bookcase of CDs.  It may on the surface seem to be fairly boring but actually it is not only very good for RDI patterns and turn-taking but it gets a bit of dreaded housework done too.  At first Ellen was quite distracted and only wanted to talk about how to get Roo’s ball off Hide & Seek Woozle (an integral part of the play station game; Piglet’s Big Game), but the lure and excitement of the task soon got to her.  We took it in turns to take the CDs off the shelf, sprayed and dusted (there was a rather shocking amount of dust) and put them back.

I have a few Indian ornaments which are wrought ironwork and difficult to dust with a cloth duster.  Ellen tried but her duster kept getting stuck on the metal spikes.  Yes!  I thought, a problem!  Problems are RDI gold.  Using the ‘pause’ it’s an opportunity to explore and develop Ellen’s dynamic thinking.

‘Your duster is getting stuck’ I said….then I waited.

‘It’s too sticky’ Ellen replied.

‘You need to dust with something else’ I prompt.  More pausing.

‘You need to brush it’ Ellen finally says.

‘Yes!’ I cried, ‘that’s a great idea, if we brush it the dust will come off straight away.’

At this point Ellen walked away purposefully and I was secretly glowing inside.  She’s gone to get the brush I thought, waiting with growing anticipation.  Well, I waited and waited for a couple of minutes until I could hear the unmistakeable sound of Hide and Seek Woozle being vapourised by piglet.  I had been abandoned.  Ah well, baby steps.


A POP to the zoo

POP was my mantra for today; Pace, (don’t) Overcompensate and Pause.  We were going to the zoo and I was keen to try and achieve some quality RDI-work in amongst the animal-gazing.

Ellen 'still looking' at the sleeping lions

Ellen ‘still looking’ at the sleeping lions

At the moment I’m working on social referencing.  This all revolves around what happens when Ellen encounters uncertainty.  What she should do when she meets something she is uncertain about is look at me, her guide, for confirmation of what to do.  It’s catching those moments and pausing for long enough to let them evolve without leaping in which is my stumbling block – hence the mantra.

Whipsnade Zoo is only a fifteen minute drive from our house.  We have been members for around fifteen years and it’s a place where Ellen is very comfortable and has a set routine.  In order to create opportunities for uncertainty, I had to shake things up a little and I had a list of four ideas:-

1. Make sandwiches to take with us  – I make Ellen’s and she makes mine.  This was fraught with danger as Ellen likes ham and I’m a vegetarian but it all went smoothly and I captured some lovely referencing on camera which all revolved around what to do with the cucumber.  Before your imaginations leap into muddy waters; let me reassure you; it was about whether to put slices of cucumber in our sandwiches or not, and whether or not to use the dry end of the cucumber (after I’d plucked it from my sandwich).  To my surprise Ellen also nodded when I held up the lettuce and so I put some in her sandwich although she has never eaten it before – and as it turned out later today wasn’t the day for her to start either.

2. Ellen to get her membership card out of her handbag and hand it over at the entrance (i.e. without help from me).  This went less well.  I thought Whipsnade would be empty today but when we got to the one open gate there was a queue of mothers and buggies.  Ellen waited for a few minutes and then obviously decided she had waited long enough and just walked past everyone into the zoo.  No-one stopped her either so she could have got away with it – but I dutifully led her back .  Our entry task was slightly hampered by the fact that Ellen had a zebra toy in one hand and a tiger in the other and would not let me hold them.  I waited though and pointed at her bag, she nudged it with the zebra’s nose – whilst looking at me.  This went on a few times before I opened her bag, took out the purse and offered it to her.  She was then able to pluck her card out and hand it over, so although I half-overcompensated by opening the bag and getting out the purse, Ellen did do a bit of social referencing too.

3. Ellen to ask for her own chips at the cafe.  It took a while for us to get to the cafe.  Ellen was fascinated by the baby hippo and whilst other people came in, gagged at the stench and left, we managed to stay for 45 minutes.  Baby hippo was asleep.  Mummy hippo made one very loud noise and the third hippo did a poo.  Riveting stuff.  We then repeated the same thing at the lions (without the pooing).  I was starving by this time, but Ellen wouldn’t budge.  She ‘hadn’t finished looking’ she kept saying.  The only thing that finally got her moving was when I sat down on a bench and started eating my sandwich.  ‘You can’t eat your sandwich there, you have to eat it in the cafe’.  Fat chance I thought – but we did finally make it on to step 3.

Ellen with her chips - before the lettuce was ejected.  Tiger looks on...

Ellen with her chips – before the lettuce was ejected. Tiger looks on…

At the cafe Ellen was still hampered by the zebra and the lion toys but I paused at the trays and when she looked at me I indicated towards the stack.  She nodded so I picked up a tray and we walked towards the hot food counter.  ‘I’d like some chips please’ she said perfectly.  The only trouble was there was no one there to hear her!  The server was still walking over from another counter, so she had to repeat herself, but he understood her first time round (one up on McDonalds).  As soon as the chips were on the tray however, I was abandoned and Ellen went and sat down at one of the tables and started eating her sandwich before I’d even got past the till.

4. The final part of the ‘uncertainty’ plan was for me to pause outside the cafe after lunch and wait for Ellen to look at me for confirmation of where we were going next.  This was an abject failure!  I paused as planned, holding out the Whipsnade map like a lemon whilst Ellen marched off towards the tigers without the slightest hint of uncertainty.  She knew exactly where she wanted to go and didn’t need to look at me for confirmation.

However, I think it was overall a pretty positive visit all – still with plenty of room for improvement on my part.  But for once, we were outdoors and the sun was shining.  I also asked Ellen to take a photo of me with the ostriches and she agreed (I was only holding the soft toys so she could use the camera – honest Gov) and above all we had fun.

Ellen's photo of me

Ellen’s photo of me

On the way back to the car Ellen suddenly said ‘what animals begin with the letter D?’ and this started a game which lasted all the way home.  She was considerably better at it than me and came out with things like ‘humming bird’ and ‘sad-faced monkey’.

It reminded me of the time I went on a school trip when Ellen was at her last school.  It was the end of term and as a treat they were all going on a trip to the zoo.  While we were waiting for the buses to arrive the teacher played this same game with the class.  ‘What animals begin with A?’ she began, and the kids called out a few animals and then one boy said ‘anteater’.  ‘No, no, no.  There is no such animal as an anteater’ the teacher said firmly.  There was an awkward pause as I was torn between not wanting to show the teacher up and accuracy.

Accuracy won and I raised my hand.  ‘Um, there is actually’ I said apologetically and the class erupted into raucous laughter.  Luckily Ellen only had a week left as no doubt she would have repeated ‘there is an anteater’ many many times.