Family Dinner Was Impossible. Now It’s Pleasant. Thank You, RDI Therapy.
For years, it’s been impossible to say why I insist nightly on setting out five plates and five forks and something hot in a pan that I’d be embarrassed by if any adult I wasn’t married to caught sight of. Though all research trumpets the importance of family dinners, I do sometimes wonder if these researchers actually do it themselves. These days, our dinners usually feel like a nightly gathering in which everyone thinks of new and imaginative ways to complain about the food.
Generally, we begin with the six-year-old’s pronouncement, said nightly like grace, that he is allergic to all food except noodles. Following this, the ten-year-old begins the elaborate process of separating any food that has touched another, and eventually we segue into moment when the thirteen-year-old lays his cheek on the table and says he’s too tired for all this all over again. Truly, I’ve wondered sometimes if maybe not eating together would bring us closer or at least spare us the nightly speech from their father: “Mom has cooked us a lovely dinner. I’d like everyone to thank Mom for the food.”
For years, I couldn’t say why I bothered except for two ridiculously vague reasons: 1) Temple Grandin once wrote that her earliest memory of acquiring language came from her mother’s insistence that she eat dinner every night with her family and answer two questions about her day. (In the grand scheme of autism therapies, this one is certainly cheaper than most.) 2) I was raised this way. I’m a life-long food lover whose Junior High School days rose and fell with a promising-sounding menu for dinner.
Now we have an intriguing therapy on the horizon called RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) that is getting talked about enough—especially in its effectiveness for older children—that it seems folly to ignore. Right off the bat, I have to say that I am a rank newcomer to these ideas (I’ve attended one workshop, watched one video and read two books) but everything about it seems appealing to someone who wants to incorporate a real family into the therapies that will help the back-and-forth interactions with its autistic member. Rank beginners that we are, I also have to say, what little we’ve tried has produced some interesting revelations.
Revelation #1: Children with autism should do chores. The embarrassing secret for most of us, perhaps, but certainly for this family with a child who is bad at virtually every practical task is that we do far too much for him. Without thinking about the long term considerations, or how namby-pamby we must look, we fetch Ethan forks and glasses of water; we tie his shoes and button his shirts. RDI message: Stop. Take the time to stop and teach him. Model the teaching. Do it interactively. The example that gets used over and over: teach him how to set the table.
Another embarrassing admission: it’s never occurred to me to ask my oldest child to set the table. Enough of a challenge, we’ve always assumed, to get him to wash his hands and come. We drill him nightly on math facts and spelling, but throw a household chore in there, as well? It’s always seemed, well, a little over the top.
I’m just beginning to realize the truth: soon it won’t be over the top. Soon enough, these household chores, basic skills like loading a dishwasher and working a microwave will matter far, far more than a spelling or math facts and we will probably slap our heads and wonder why we didn’t start this teaching sooner, with its basic message: You want some soup, here’s the can opener. You want some juice, look in the fridge. The point being the powerful underlying message lost on so many children with autism: yes you can do this. You can take care of certain things yourself and what’s more, you can help the family.
I can’t speak for other families, but I suspect autistic children are probably asked to do far too little around their houses because they live with families who long ago grew accustomed to coddling their sometimes volatile and fragile natures. We have learned, over the years, not to rock boats or create what might be an unnecessary demand. We’ve forgotten that our children want to feel successful, that easy tasks well rewarded will feel good to them, and will awaken them to the idea of trying more on their own. I will say this: the same week Ethan started setting the table, he came down wearing a madras shirt, misbuttoned, that no one had ever seen before. In fact, no one has ever seen him in anything other than a t-shirt. He was grinning ear to ear. “I buttoned it myself,” he said, and nodded as if this shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone.
Revelation #2: Talk about yourself. With a child who is a reticent talker, everyone has the same first impulse—ask a dozen questions and hope one or two produce an answer. For years, I have peppered Ethan with questions when he gets home from school: simple questions, yes-and-no questions, questions I already know the answer to. Usually I get what I also hear from his brothers, to be honest—monosyllables, grunts, lots of silence.
The novelty RDI approach is to keep all questions to the barest minimum, to talk as little as possible and try this: share some tiny snippet from your own day. To my enormous surprise, this actually works. Tell Ethan what I had for lunch that day and I won’t always get his menu, but I will, much more often, get a question about where I ate or who I was with. This has us experimenting around the dinner table: recently, his father and I started telling memories of our own childhood days.
What the heck, we decided, if no one can come up with anything to say besides complaints about the food, my husband and I can come up with or two reasonably funny playground stories of our own sorry kickball days, or the time on the jungle gym when my underwear fell off. The night we told these stories, our dinner lasted an unprecedented half hour (twenty-seven minutes longer than usual) and culminated in everyone (including Ethan!) thinking of funny playground stories to tell.
In the beginning stages of incorporating a therapy that puts as one of its primary missions improving family relations, it’s interesting that so much of it should be done around the dinner table. For so long we’ve been sitting here, ready and waiting, apparently not sure what to say.
Cammie’s essays on family/life can be found here at The Faster Times and on her web site.
Photo from Squidoo
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