RDI and Non-Verbal Children

Autism: A New Perspective
Autism: A New Perspective
RDI and Non-Verbal Children

If you have a child that is non-verbal and are looking for more information on how the RDI® Model works, (or does it work?) with non-verbal children, this podcast is for you!

Sometimes there is a misconception that RDI does not work with children who are non-verbal, that this is not for them. But Dr. Rachelle Sheely talks about her work with children on the spectrum that were non-verbal and how RDI® can be used with every child.

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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 always 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 RDI and non-verbal children. And she says RDI is for everyone. Let’s listen in.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Okay. And I agree that RDI is for everybody. In fact, I would take it further and say that RDI is for people who are not on the spectrum. And having grandchildren now, I find myself doing RDI with them, and it’s because the principles of development are so thoroughly grounded in everything we do that we don’t do anything weird. We don’t do anything that doesn’t make sense. And so, not only in my practice, but in my personal life, I find myself doing RDI.

Kat Lee: I know you’ve worked with little children, younger children, teens, adults. And I wanted to kinda focus in on your work with children who came to you non-verbal, and sometimes this misconception that RDI is not for them. So what is your experience? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: My experience is that we don’t know a child’s potential. We don’t know a family’s potential, and still… Until we start working on it. And so I know some parents who have children who are not communicating. And by that, I mean not only verbally communicating, but also non-verbally communicating. They have this sense of, “I don’t think it’s going to work.” And so I have stories that I like to tell them. I like to tell them about some of the children who came and had no language, actually did get language. And for those who didn’t, they also reached their potential. And for me, that’s what remediation is, saying, “We don’t know where you’re going, but whatever you’re capable of, we can help you get there.” And so it’s not where you start, but what we do and how we help you achieve the degree of independence that you’re capable of achieving.

Kat Lee: Have you seen strengths that children who are non-verbal and their families actually bring when they start having RDI? Because I actually have found sometimes those children, as compensation for themselves, actually do have some of those developmental foundations that other children don’t when they are verbal. It’s very interesting, actually.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: It is interesting. And I’m thinking about some of the children that we began to work with. And of course, we always start with communication, and worry about the language later. And what I’ve found is that the children who don’t have language to begin with, when we began to work with them on facial expression and tone of voice, and where their bodies are, they begin to get really good at interacting with other children the same age. And that always surprises me, because we think, “Well, we have to really get them to a certain point before they’ll even notice other children.” But that’s not true. And I’ve seen children who had almost no language go into kindergarten with no support. And by that, I mean there’s no aid in the classroom, there was nobody telling them what to do, and yet, they were able to pay attention to the teacher, they were able to do what everybody else was doing, because they were looking around at them to see what they were doing, and they were able to actually begin to form friendships, relationships in kindergarten.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: So they would go outside, and mostly boys, of course, on the spectrum, and if the boys were running around, they would start running around with them. And if they were in the classroom and they saw a boy doing some artwork, they might say… Well, one boy, I remember him saying this, he’d say, “Cool, man.” He didn’t have a lot of words, but the words he had were relationship-building words. And sometimes, if children have a lot of language, and by the way, I wish everybody was talking, I don’t wanna take anything away from that, but for children who have a lot of language, they use the language to control, and they don’t use it conversationally. So these little guys and some girls that we see who come to us with no language start with communication, and it begins to build, just as it does in typical development.

Kat Lee: When you meet with parents of children who seem to be non-verbal or very low verbal, I know there’s a lot of terms that we use, but do you find those parents to wonder if this is a last chance, or something else wasn’t working, or all of the above? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: All of the above. And for parents who have been told that they need to immerse themselves, excuse me, in programs that teach language, they fully immerse themselves in these programs sometimes for 40 hours a week. Little children are sitting at desks. And then when they get to the point where the child can say, “Give me a cookie, please,” but the child can’t sustain a conversation, they realize they’ve missed something. And so, somehow, they find their way to our door, some of them do, and some of them don’t, but I never feel that it’s too late. I never feel that passivity, which is often a result of very intense language-building programs. Passivity and status maintaining behaviors that we stay in in the beginning. I never feel that we’re stuck with those, and I just feel like we need to be patient with ourselves, and we need to be patient with the children, and we need to go back and look at typical development, say, “Where’s everybody stuck, and what do we do from this point on?”

Kat Lee: A lot of times when I talk to families with children who’ve really struggled with speaking, as we’ll say, they feel a bit hopeless. I hate to say it that way, but what they tell me is part of it is they’ve been told that they can only expect so much now, almost as if at a certain point professionals… And we always say we know well-meaning, but it felt like they had to tell them, “Look, you need to lower your expectations.” So what I love about RDI is that we want to reach every child’s fullest potential, and we have high expectations.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: We do. And we have high expectations because we know from experience that things can get turned around, they can evolve, they can develop, and so I have so many… I just have so many examples that I can give parents, where I say, “Look at this boy right now.” And he’s lying on the floor, he has no language, got a car going back and forth in front of his face, he’s not responding to his name, and I’ll say, “This boy is a college graduate. This boy has a business he started, where he talks to people, finds out who they are, and then designs, for money, logos for their business. He’s got this going, and there are other things he’d wanna do.” And I can talk to them about the boy who doesn’t have very much language, and the language that he does have is… It comes out in a difficult way, it’s difficult to understand, but he’s had a job at Starbucks for 12 years, and he takes care of his own money. He’s got his own place.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And I think about other families where the parents have just been so consistent in their work with RDI, they send me between two and eight videos every week of things they’re doing with their son. And they never give up, they keep doing things with them. And recently, they gave me some videos, we call them the jumping videos, where the dad is jumping with the son and he’s using non-verbal communications to tell the son when they’re going to jump, and there’s a funny conversation that takes place, because the father is jumping on the bunk bed with the boy up and down, and then the boy tries to get him to jump and the father goes… And the boy goes…


Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And the father goes… And the boy is going like this. And when I watch that I laugh so hard. But they’ve allowed me to share that video. And in a recent training I was doing… There was a mother who said, ” I just took that video, I looked at it and I thought, ‘I’m going to try that with my child.'” And she said almost immediately her child began to respond to her. So we never know where the child’s going to end up, but I really warn people, don’t judge the child’s potential, don’t predict it based on whether the child has language, or doesn’t have language.

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.


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