Teens, Adults and the RDI® Program

The title art for the RDIconnect podcast
Autism: A New Perspective
Teens, Adults and the RDI® Program

Can you start an RDI® Program with a teen or young adult and it still be effective?

Starting any program with a teen or young adult is going to look very different than if you were working with a small child. So, we have to go into it understanding that. We also have to understand that with older kids they have experienced more of life, and that can also create obstacles. For example, bullying, and feeling inadequate, not understanding why other people do things so effortlessly and why it’s so hard for them.

But, we have seen many older kids and young adults that have come into RDI® from another therapy model and have still been able to move on and grow and take advantage of the Guiding Relationship. You just have to understand how to implement it and not give up hope.


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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 do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Sheely joins us and talks about RDI, teens, and adults. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: So we’re talking today about teens and adults entering RDI, and this is a subject really dear to my heart, Dr. Sheely, because way back, I don’t know if I should say how long ago. One of my very first cases was a young adult, he was 18, almost 19, and I would never want someone to shy away from RDI, Dr. Sheely, because their child is older. What do you have to say about that? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I wouldn’t want them to shy away either. I also think that there is some confusion about what you do with an 18-year-old, because if you have a young child and your work going on referencing, you can play peek-a-boo. You’re not going to do that with a 15-year-old, an 18-year-old, or a 27-year-old, but referencing does require something like that, but it has to be age-appropriate.

So when I think about a young teenager, even an older teenager, I like to think about, what do, particularly guys this age, like to do? And how could we work on the kinds of things that need to be worked on and let them feel grown up, let them feel their age, not feel like we’re playing down to them.

So I love thinking about this, and I think over the years, I did not start with an 18-year-old, I started with an 18-month-old, but over the years, I began to see that it was a great population, and they were really fun to work with, and great opportunities for things.

Kat Lee: Well, I feel so passionately that if you’re an 18-year-old, or like you said, 27-year-old, age is not the issue, and you’re trying to get around in the world with, however we wanna say, holes is in your developmental plan, whatever it may be, it’s really hard, and that was the case with this wonderful guy that I worked with, he was out there trying to live a life, and he didn’t know why he was having so much trouble in life and what a charming person he is and was.

But they had nothing to do with that, it had to do with he had missed some things, and that’s what I would have parents and students know, it’s things get missed in that developmental little path and we can help with that, and it made all the difference, it made all the difference to him.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Did it? I think about regulatory patterns and how we move together and how when children are very young, it’s so easy. You play those little games with them, you do patty cake, you do things like that. But sometimes you still need to work on regulatory patterns with someone who’s older. And I like to take a walk. I’ve often said to parents, “I think you could do all of RDI, work on every objective by just taking a walk.”

So I often start by getting them into the habit of just walking around the block together, and that can be more difficult than people will imagine, because for people who are not in sync with each other to try to walk around the block, gets to be difficult.

So they say, “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to do this? Do you want me… Just noticeable differences,” “No, just walk around the block.” And I found that there are some things we can do when walking around the block that very quickly get us walking together.

For instance, you can lock arms, or you see guys walking down the street with their hands on each other’s shoulders, and those kinds of things don’t look odd and they don’t feel odd, but yet they begin to work on regulatory patterns in a way that helps the person we’re working with get in sync with us.

Kat Lee: Do you find that when older students come to you, the parents struggle with hopefulness when they’re older? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think they’re worried about the future, because when a child is much younger you think, “I have all these years.” But when you have someone older who comes in, the parents are often very tired, because they’ve been trying so many things.

And yes, I think they struggle with hope, it’s very difficult for them to dream again. So oddly enough, something like walking around the block and feeling that connection, goes a long way towards giving them hope, “We’ve never done this before, this feels great. I’m feeling connected to my child. My child is enjoying being me.”

Kat Lee: It’s interesting you said that, because when you’re talking about walking arm in arm or linked arms, I actually was… That’s exactly why I asked you that question. Because that vision sounded so hopeful, so natural, and I can see tired parents and tired adult children too. The children are tired of the struggle really having a hard time envisioning that because of what they’ve been through.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And I think it’s often not the autism that is so much a problem as some of the difficulties they’ve been through. For example, bullying, and feeling inadequate, not understanding why other people do things so effortlessly, why it’s so hard for them.

So all of those things have come together to wear them down, and just that freedom of taking off the expectations, I’m not gonna make you do anything. We’re just gonna walk around the block. And I feel like it goes a long way for both parents, and I say children, because my children are grown up, so I feel like I can call them children.

Kat Lee: I love what you’re saying about your thinking about where that child, that student, that young adult is and where the family is. And this just brings me back to how everything about RDI is about the individual.

You’re not playing peek-a-boo with a 27-year-old. It’s what I love about RDI because we take our families through a very family-friendly assessment, and we figure out what’s gonna work for that family.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And I think when we’re thinking about what’s going to work for the family, we’re also considering that this is kind of an adult. This is a person who’s pretty much an adult now, and what do adults do? What are the kinds of authentic jobs that they have? And I like to have the person positioned in the family, where they’re contributing to the family.

And so, for example, let’s move the furniture. So you’re picking up the sofa, and you’re moving the furniture together. It’s a regulatory pattern, but you’re rearranging as you’re doing something for your family. You decide that you’re going to paint the living room bubble gum pink. I hope you don’t do that, but you decide you’re going to paint the living room.

You’re doing something that is an adult task. You’re doing it in a complementary sequential way sometimes, sometimes simultaneous with the father or the mother, and when you’re doing that painting, you are in a regulatory pattern, but you’re contributing to your family.

People walk in and, “Oh I love the new color in the living room.” “Yeah, we did it together.” And so there’s that feeling of being competent, having agency, doing things with your family and for your family.

Kat Lee: Well, I know we have families, but we also have people whose profession have taken them into working with adult students. I know sometimes professionals will shy away from adults, not because they don’t care for them, because they think maybe it will be more challenging. I really think it’s just different, don’t you? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think it is different. I don’t think about it as challenging anymore, do you? No, I feel like sometimes you just have to take the first step and say, “Let me get started.” And once you’ve done that, it feels great, and you’re really enjoying the new experience you’re having, as well.

Kat Lee: I think one of the reasons it doesn’t is because of the great individual assessment in our RDA, our relationship development assessment, that we have. It is for the individual family, which is for everybody. And I always tell people it’s not a test.

As a parent myself, the word assessment, or exam, or whatever can have a connotation we don’t love, but this is so completely different. It’s just about watching a family, and so how old the family members are is only as relevant as is much as we need to individualize what we’re doing for them.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: And one of the things that we do in the assessment that I love is we change the materials around, so that if we’re trying to see how a young child might put together a puzzle with a parent, with an older teenager or young adult, we can get some kind of a 3D thing that they’re going to put together.

And it’s really interesting for them, because they’ve never done it before. And so you can see the parent and child, you see their minds really working on, “How do we do this? How do we figure it out?” There’s a conversation, and we’re already establishing that we’re all in this together. We’re gonna move forward together.

Kat Lee: One of the things that I want to touch on, as we conclude, is all adults, I know some families will tell me if their children are struggled with speaking or can’t speak or other side-alongs, if we will. Some people say co-occurring side with autism.

They always kind of go, “Not a problem.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not a problem. For what we do, it’s for everybody,” and I just want you to speak to that, because I think particularly as children get older, and they’re into the teens or even adults, and they’re still struggling with some of those things, parents sometimes feel like, “Well maybe that’s for others, but not for our family.” And I know it’s just not true.

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: When you think about someone who has a problem with language, it doesn’t mean they have a problem understanding. And so I think too often professionals rush in and categorise that person as somebody who can’t do things, but if we take our time, I really believe everybody has a gift, and everybody has a talent, and we need to find out what that is, and we need to develop it.

I’m really impressed with the work of Kamini Lakhani in India, and at our last annual conference, she was talking about what some of her young adults were doing. And there was a guy, who has almost no language, and he has this talent for cooking, and he comes up with these creative wonderful dishes. And she said, “Who would have known?” And her own son, they discovered, had a gift for art, for painting. And his work now is on the runway in India.

Somebody picked it up, and they’re taking his designs, and they’re putting them onto fabrics and making purses, and hats and saris, different things like that. I feel like we have to take the time that’s needed to understand what a person’s interests are, what their capabilities are, where their talents are, and then come alongside them and help them develop those things.

Kat Lee: And that’s what RDI leads us too, doesn’t it? 

Dr. Rachelle Sheely: It does.


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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