Declarative language is experience-sharing language, which offers an invitation to connect. It differs from imperative language, which is directive. Children with ASDs are less likely to use declarative language and struggle to respond to others’ declarative language (for example, “It’s raining!”).
When we began the RDI program, we were encouraged to use 80 percent declarative language and only 20 percent imperative language when engaging with Brian. For example, instead of saying “Brian, put on your shoes,” we practiced making a declarative statement like, “I see your shoes on the floor.” The second statement invites a moment of intersubjectivity or shared perception and the opportunity for Brian to dynamically appraise the situation and make a choice of how to respond.
Referencing refers to the ability to borrow someone else’s perspective in order, for example, to resolve an uncertain situation or enhance one’s own experience. Neurotypical children frequently check in with their parents to make sure the parents find an experience as cool as they do. ASD children frequently don’t.
Early on in our RDI work, I remember spotting a ladybug crawling on our kitchen floor. Brian, Courtney, and I gathered around the insect. Brian stared at the ladybug, making statements like, “the ladybug is red and black . . . the ladybug is crawling . . . the ladybug has wings.” Courtney looked back and forth from the ladybug to me with a big smile on her face, clearly needing to ensure that I was “with her” in this experience.
Regulating (or coregulation) means “dancing” with someone else in an interaction. Babies have many early experiences with coregulation, for example when they play peek-a-boo with a parent. They learn that they have a role, and the other person has a role, too. To keep the interaction going, which of course they want to do, they need to fulfill their role. This ability is compromised with ASD children, for whom the back-and-forth of a shared experience is confusing and overwhelming. A solo, static world, which helps them manage these feelings of incompetence, becomes preferable to them. Helping Brian become a more competent coregulating partner is so rewarding. He’s now able to tease, play tag (a surprisingly dynamic game of coregulation!), and help around the house.
Episodic memory is frequently impaired in ASD children. When we use episodic memory, we remember how a situation affected us in the past and we use that memory to guide our current reactions. Steven Gutstein believes that the behavior problems of ASD children are really memory problems. Because of his impaired episodic memory, a couple of years ago, Brian seemed destined to repeat endlessly the pattern of becoming anxious and overwhelmed and then pushing other children on the playground. He couldn’t use his episodic memory to tell himself, “last time this happened, Mom and I took a break, and I felt better” or “last time this happened, I got in trouble for pushing, so I’m going to make a different choice this time.” His impaired episodic memory prevented him from making choices in the present guided by a sense of the past. RDI is helping him tremendously with this core deficit, as indicated by a dramatic decrease in “negative behaviors” and a dramatically increased ability to use us (or other trusted adults) to support him when he begins to become anxious, confused, or angry.
Flexible thinking allows us to cope adaptively with changes to our plans and recognize the many shades of gray between black and white. Children with ASDs are famous for their rigidity and need for sameness. We try to give Brian lots of opportunities to explore the idea that there’s usually more than one right answer and that playing with multiple truths can be fun. We also know that when we create a routine and implement it the same way each time so as not to upset him, we’re probably feeding or reinforcing Brian’s autism. We try to be mindful about spotlighting changes to the schedule and celebrating his ability to go with the flow.
Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, is internationally recognized as one of today’s most trusted voices in the world of relationships, and her framework of Relational Self-Awareness has reached millions of people around the globe. A couples therapist, speaker, author, professor, podcast host, retreat leader, and media personality, Dr. Solomon is passionate about translating cutting-edge research and clinical wisdom into practical tools people can use to bring awareness, curiosity, and authenticity to their relationships. She is a clinician educator and a frequent contributor to academic journals and research, and she translates her academic and therapeutic experience to the public through her popular and vibrant Instagram page, which has garnered over 200K followers. She is on faculty in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University and is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Her hit podcast, Reimagining Love, has reached listeners across the globe and features high-profile guests from the worlds of therapy, academia, and pop culture. Her latest bestselling book is Love Every Day. You can visit her online at DrAlexandraSolomon.com and on Instagram at @dr.alexandra.solomon.