Just Noticeable Differences: A Key to Independence

The title art for the RDIconnect podcast "Autism: A New Perspective." The subtitle reads "The podcast show to understand what's going on in the mind of your child and encourage you that growth IS possible! Hosted by RDI Certified Consultant Kat Lee."
Autism: A New Perspective
Just Noticeable Differences: A Key to Independence

Children with autism don’t have an innate motivation for growth-seeking, rather they display a desire to maintain stability (they want everything to stay the same!) But what if you could help introduce change slowly and comfortably into your kid’s lives in a way that made them not only embrace change but look forward to it?

Join Dr. Rachelle Sheely, the co-founder of RDIconnect® for this month’s podcast episode of ASD, A New Perspective.



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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD, A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child and we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Sheely talks to us about the importance of just noticeable differences. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: I think what I would like to do is just first let’s just start out with a definition of what are just noticeable differences.

Dr. Sheely: It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a difference that you notice, but it’s so small it doesn’t really take a lot of thought. 

So if you and I are playing with a red ball and we’re just tossing it back and forth and I change that to a blue ball, you would notice that I changed, but because the pattern stayed consistent, it would be a just noticeable difference. A very small difference in what we were doing together.

Kat Lee: Why do you think that’s an important concept for people? Because I think for parents it’s one of the concepts that we need to teach close to the beginning almost.

Dr. Sheely: The reason it’s important and the reason we spend so much time thinking about it is that our children don’t have that growth-seeking motivation. And one of the reasons they don’t is because they like things that stay the same. They don’t know what to do when something changes. 

So by introducing them to change that they can handle, that they’re comfortable with, by doing that we help them actually become very comfortable with the changes, but also it activates for them growth-seeking, which in autism has not been activated.

Kat Lee: And I was listening to you speak and you were talking about changes and it’s just such a, almost a stereotypical phrase that the children don’t like change. So it seems like you’re going with just noticeable differences to the heart of the problem for a lot of children.

Dr. Sheely: I think we are. And it’s an easy concept and it’s something that’s actually easy to do. But you have to think about it. And you have to line it up in your head before you get started with it. 

So for example, going back to the ball, if I were playing with a little red ball that’s this big and I changed to a blue ball and a yellow ball, now I’ve changed the color. And the child is comfortable with that if we’ve been throwing it. 

Then what we can do is bounce it with those three different colored balls or we can roll it with those three different color balls. We now have changed things nine times. I think that’s right. I think we changed it nine times. And it’s okay and the child feels competent.

Dr. Sheely: Remember the best motivator is competence. And then we can start doing other things with it. We can throw little teddy bears back and forth. Or we can take a big beach ball. But whenever we’re doing something with children, we need to establish a pattern. 

And then just introduce the just noticeable differences because of the motivational aspect of that and the feelings of competence that the child has when he realizes this is different but I’m okay with it.

Kat Lee: I was just thinking when you were talking about those and into the nine changes and then moving forward even. And I was thinking about it’s called just noticeable differences because that’s what they are, but how it leads to big noticeable differences.

Dr. Sheely: It does.

Kat Lee: It’s a journey toward greater flexibility.

Dr. Sheely: And in some of our literature we have different things that people can do, like thrower, receiver, holder, put in. These kinds of things. And because we have such a lovely list of these different things that people can use, then they can take that idea. 

For example, let’s go back to thrower catcher and they can do a lot of different things with it. So for example, if parents start with a ball, which you would probably start with just because that’s what you do with a ball, you throw it back and forth. But you can also move that into doing the laundry where they throw the towel and the child puts the towel in. 

Now they have the same pattern going, but they’re doing it with something that’s really necessary for making their house go. To keep that going.

Kat Lee: I was thinking about that this is a really individual plan because a just noticeable difference just one child might be too big of a difference for another child. So it’s very individualistic I would think.

Dr. Sheely: It is individualistic and also it’s also a little bit dependent on the child’s motor capability. So if you’ve been doing something with balls you can then say, “Well, the child can’t even catch a slow-moving ball.” So you might move to balloons. Because balloons are really, really slow. Throw it up in the air, the child can hit it back. And you can increase the distance, which is a just noticeable difference. 

You can put something up between a sofa, you get on opposite sides of the sofa, and it’s just a noticeable difference. Everything’s staying the same, but there’s a small difference that actually helps the child feel competent with change.

Kat Lee: I love that example of the balloons because you might need to do that with one child but maybe not with another. So it just shows how much our program is about the individual. 

I also think about it has, and I do tell my parents about just about everything we do, and you’re so, so well-spoken on this. But it’s not just a child goal, it’s a parent goal too. And sometimes parents need those just noticeable differences.

Dr. Sheely: Well that’s interesting. Yes, that’s true. Because there is a parallel process between the training we do with consultants and the training the consultants do with parents and what parents do with children. And each of these things we’re looking for independence eventually. 

And because we’re looking for independence, we want to make sure that each step of the way the person we’re dealing with feels competent. We also want to feel competent too. So we want to think about what’s the step, the first step for me, as I work with this family and how can this parent feel competent in the work with the child? 

So we keep our objective short, we keep them focused, and we keep them very specific. So the just noticeable differences have something that’s very important for the work we do with our children. But they also create an atmosphere where everyone feels competent.

Dr. Sheely: So I wouldn’t say to a parent, “Look, you’re going to do these five things today. You’re going to play with balls, then you’re going to go with balloons, then teddy bears, then you’re going to do the laundry. And oh, by the way, let’s think about washing the car and you’re throwing the soap backward.” 

Okay, you do something like that and everybody’s overwhelmed, including you. And you have no idea why you gave such a long assignment. So what we would do is something very simple like the balls. And a really good explanation of why we’re doing it. And what we’re doing with the parent is saying, “I’m going to show you something that is going to be really simple that you’re going to be able to do with your child. And as you’re doing this, I want you to begin to think about the pattern and something else you might be able to use to do just noticeable differences.”

Dr. Sheely: Now the parent has decided that there are other things he or she can do. And in doing that, we have children who are benefiting from their parents, their parents own creativity, and the kids are becoming creative too. By the way, sometimes we’ll see kids who get really good at this and they will introduce their just noticeable differences, which is fabulous.

Kat Lee: I love everything. As a parent, I love everything you said and I was thinking about it. As a parent, if you’ve given too many things to do, it becomes this huge, big difference. And huge, big differences become almost a mental block. But those just noticeable things to do as a parent you could do those. And yeah, I can do that. Sure I could do that.

 And it just makes that journey seem so possible, which I think is such a beautiful thing. But I think one of the things that I try to do is draw a line between these just noticeable difference to future independence when the children are older. And I think that’s so important to understand for people that these little tiny things are really big things.

Dr. Sheely: They are big things. I think the important thing also to remember is that a just noticeable difference is not the end goal. It’s a means to an end. And so if we’re working on just noticeable differences, maybe what we’re actually working on is nonverbal communication. Maybe we’re working on referencing. But we have a big goal and we have big objectives and this is just one way to master the objective or the goal.

Kat Lee: Well, as all things with RDI, just noticeable differences are so hopeful. They’re so possible.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah. It’s very exciting, isn’t it?

Kat Lee: Thanks for joining us for ASD, A New Perspective, a podcast show where we help you understand the mind of your child and we always encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


  1. Geeta

    Very informative. Thank you

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