The following was written by RDI Consultant and parent, Audrey Todd
The person who led me to become an RDI consultant was my son with autism, Liam, who is now 8 years old, and essentially non-verbal. In 2010 my husband and I started a vocational rehabilitation and supported employment facility dedicated to persons with autism.
Recently our company took on a paper route in the neighborhood (where we bag and distribute the group of coupons that is delivered to local residences during the weekend—in our city it is called “The Bag,” and it is sponsored by our local newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch). On Thursdays and Fridays, our supported employment staff bags the coupons in their respective bags, and we have a supported group that completes the deliveries on the weekends.
For the past several weekends, my son and I have also delivered on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I have felt such joy in seeing the progress that he has made in embracing his own role in our work together. The first weekend he needed hand-over-hand assistance to hang The Bag on each doorknob. He was confused by the different doorknobs on each house, and how each doorknob required him to do different actions with his hands to affix the bag to the knob. He was also confused by finding the hole in the bag (that allowed him to hang it on the knob), and he needed to be taught how to hold the bag so that all the coupons wouldn’t fall out. He was tentative to walk to the door and afraid of the dogs barking inside each house.
The next weekend I was able to fade some of my assistance, as he had mastered how to hang the bag on the doorknob (after more than 430 houses to practice on!), but he needed me to walk to the door with him, or he would become distracted and lose track of his purpose. I was thrilled to find that this weekend I was able to remain on the sidewalk while he walked up to each house on his own, found the front door on his own, and hung The Bag very neatly on each doorknob!
It occurred to me this weekend that my process with my son is very similar to an analogy that Dr. Gutstein provided to us in our Advanced Training in 2007. He stated that when you are teaching your child to ride a bike, at first you have your hands on the handle bars with your child (and probably you have training wheels too). As your child begins to learn the skill, perhaps you have only one finger on a handle bar to help just in case they fall (and the training wheels have been tossed). Then, you fade yourself further by standing in the yard to watch. Finally, once your child has the skill, you walk back into the house as your job is done.
There are many other benefits to our mother-son ritual. Not only does my son love the regulatory bipedal motion of walking, he also loves to lift and carry his box of coupon bags. I help him to carry the box when it is full—sometimes we carry it from the bottom and sometimes we carry it from the sides. Sometimes I go backwards—sometimes he does.
Each weekend we spend several hours together walking our route. It is during these times that my son’s self-stimulatory behaviors cease, and he is engrossed in his joint task with me. While he cannot tell me through speech that he feels proud of himself, it is clear to me from his actions, body language, and facial expressions that my son derives a tremendous sense of competence from our collaboration. There are many ways to elaborate on and extend our framework too—perhaps as he becomes older he can begin to learn about the paycheck that we earn each week from our route (and to acquire some of that money himself). Because we earn a small amount of money from our hard work, he can continue to learn the necessity (and value) of hard work. I can teach him how to decipher which house numbers do not want a coupon bag delivered, and I can teach him how to collate the coupons when stuffing the bags. Like so many parents have known generations before my generation, there is much joy and benefit attained from teaching our children the classic paper route. Through our simple delivery route together, I experience myself as a competent guide to my son, and I feel closer emotionally to him. In the midst of all the iphones, GPS devices, and other electronic gadgets that we think we need in this age of technology, some things never change.
Dr. Audrey Todd obtained her doctorate (PhD) in Clinical Psychology from Stony Brook University. She received her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Acting from Rutgers University. She obtained her Bachelor’s (BA) degree from Duke University.
In addition to maintaining a private psychological practice in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Todd is the creator and CEO of Food for Good Thought, Inc., a supported employment and vocational rehabilitation facility dedicated to individuals with autism.
She has a son with autism and is a Certified RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) Program Consultant, a developmental remediation program for individuals with autism and their families.