I recently had the privilege to spend an hour chatting with long-time RDI consultant Jo Fokkes, from Sydney, Australia. Jo’s experience and passion for her work inspired me!
What’s your background? How did you decide to become an RDI consultant?
I’m a developmental speech pathologist and have been practicing for over 40 years.
I had been working in a clinic that eventually became one of the first in Sydney to offer ABA services. I eventually realized that my approach didn’t fit with the clinic’s philosophy.
I heard about the work Libby Scherrer was doing, and decided to attend an RDI conference, where I met Dr. Gutstein and Dr. Sheely. My SLP qualifications are so “ancient” that I have a diploma, not a degree. I practice under a “grandmother clause”. I wasn’t sure if I would be accepted for RDI training, but I was, and in 2005 I traveled to the US to study RDI.
My practice grew as word spread about RDI, and I have continued to have a large case load of RDI families ever since.
What’s unique about the way you work?
Other SLPs will build the elements of language by teaching specific skills. My approach is to get children back on the developmental pathway. I’m facilitating the child to grow, and to do what they are ready to do.
I’ve had some families approach me who have taken their child to two or three other speech and language specialists or whose children may have “graduated” from an ABA-based early intervention program, and have had their child not learn language. The parents become unhappy, and start researching; they think maybe RDI will help where other approaches haven’t.
When I look into it, I realize that the child’s nonverbal communication is still not developed. It’s like they got turned off from communicating. One mother looked back at older videos where her child was trying to communicate nonverbally and was being deliberately ignored. These children need need trust and basic respect for their efforts to communicate.
Yesterday I worked with a client with a severe language disorder. We hadn’t seen one another for a month. I said to the dad, “Do you think we’ve made any progress? How did she go over the break?” He told me, “The language isn’t getting better, but she is so much happier. We are focused on communicating. She feels so much freer.” She is very good at being nonverbal, but before they were demanding that she be verbal and that was putting so much strain on the system. I think in therapy I’ve seen a change in her because now she communicates and also happily imitates my modelling spontaneously. Before, she would not have done that – she was anxious, trying to do what was expected and could not do it.
Communication is much more important than language. Language – once you’ve got communication in place – can almost fall into place in many cases.
What are some changes you’ve seen during the time you’ve been an RDI consultant?
A big change in my caseload is happening now. The Australian government had a program where children with ASD under age 7 would have up to $12,000 of funding available to get help for their child. Australia is now bringing in the NDIS, National Disability Insurance Scheme, which doesn’t stop at age 7. It can go to age 65.
Now that universal financial support is available for kids on the spectrum, there is huge potential! RDI is recognized within this scheme, so I have seen an increase in the number of adults who want to work with me. Before, they didn’t have funding, and didn’t do any therapy. I now have four adult clients.
Do you have any particularly memorable cases you’d like to share?
I remember a set of twins who started RDI at about 18 months. Both were totally nonverbal; the girl had been diagnosed with severe autism, and the boy with moderate autism.
Twelve months later, after a year of speech and RDI, the children were re-evaluated and she tested moderate, he tested mild. Now they are both highly verbal. The boy is in mainstream school and doing well. The girl is in a special class within a mainstream school and doing very well. She has still got some intellectual disability. I see them every fortnight to help them work on.
What do you like most about your work?
There’ve been a lot of parents who have had a moment of “seeing the light” where they understand that when they do things the way I am suggesting, the child will respond in a certain way they haven’t seen before.
I had one mother of a young adult client who had a lot of past ABA experience. She struggled with not telling her son what to do. I dropped some cards on the floor and she said to her son, “Get down, pick them up, go on!” Now she knows to pause and stay quiet, but she has trouble changing that. She knows she has to work on this, too. She has asked her son’s aide to kick her when she does it!
Other clients are at the stage where they come less frequently. I think that’s where I like my clients to be eventually. You don’t “cure” autism. You have a continual growth pattern. You adjust, solve problems, figure out how to fit into the world. The parents become skilled enough to be the guides I want them to be and then I can step back. That is how I see my role. They are there for the child, and if they’ve got a problem they know where I am.
I bumped into one client while shopping the other day and said “Things must be going well, you haven’t contacted me.” He said, “Yes. We’ll come and see you sometime this year.”
What are your passions — what keeps you going?
It gives me huge pleasure to see the things “my kids” do. I call them “my kids”; sometimes my own adult kids get upset about that!
It’s an exhausting profession because you give a lot of yourself. It’s not just the program. It’s your ability to work with people. The program is fantastic; I absolutely adore it. And yet you also need all your other tools: working with people, using your insight and experience.
It’s a fantastic thing to be doing. I’m past retirement age and I have no intention of retiring. I filled out my speech path re-registration form yesterday and it asked how many years I’ve been practicing. I think it was 46. Then it asked, “How many more years do you think you might be practicing?” I thought, “How about I put down ten?” Because I have no plan to stop.
And if I say to parents “I’m getting old, I should think about retiring,” they say, “No, just wait till you’ve finished with us.”
To get in touch with Jo Fokkes, you can email her at email@example.com or call at 0419 775 558