What autistic schoolgirl Lucy, did next: An explosion in development

an explosion in development

In my last blogpost, I shared my intention to show footage of other pupils from Bright Futures School.  In light of more excellent progress from Lucy, on whom my other SNJ posts have focused, I’ve decided to continue highlighting what’s happening with her development.

There is footage of guiding with Saoirse on my Food for Thought blog if anyone wants to take a look.  There is also footage on my blog of me using guiding to work with Harry (age 13), one of our older pupils.

When Lucy started at BFS last September, she was minimally verbal, usually either taking a member of staff over to where she wanted something or using just a single word to convey her wishes.

After a year of ‘guiding’ (RDI) at school, we found ourselves discussing recently at a staff meeting that Lucy's development seems to have skyrocketed, including major progress with language - rather than single words or repetitive scripting, she has been using meaningful sentences in the correct context when sharing simple bits of information.

Explosion in language

Some lovely recent examples of this include when Lucy sat with Jo and chose the “Goldilocks and the three bears” story to read. Jo used only non-verbal communication by pointing to what was happening on the pages and sharing something about the action, using prosody, gesture or facial expression.  When she pointed to the bears, Lucy said, “Put on your coat, put on your hat, put on your scarf,” as a way of commenting on and sharing with Jo what was happening in the story. At the end of the story, Lucy shared with Jo, “I love Goldilocks” and blew the book a kiss.

When Lucy sees Flynn, the school dog, she shows great excitement - giggling and talking about her past memories of Flynn: “No Flynn, don’t eat the cardigan!”, “Flynn, eat your dinner!”, Flynn ate the pillow in Saoirse’s room”.

Recently Lucy has been socialising outside of school with Saoirse.  Lucy loves to reminisce around this and tell staff “Went on a bear hunt with Lauren (Saoirse’s Mum), Saoirse and Dinny (Saoirse’s brother)” or “Fun on a bear hunt with Lauren.”

Lucy will often tell us about family members or what’s happened at home, for example, “Nana’s got a poorly foot, go to bed Nana”, “Was sick at Nana’s house on Wednesday,”,  “Ella said there’s a balloon on the moon”.

She is more readily sharing experiences and initiating conversation now on her choice of subject, e.g. “Got a wobbly tooth in Daddy’s car”  “I like it at Auntie Sarah’s”.

Lucy loves animals and likes imaginative play and putting the animals to bed.  As she pretends to put them to sleep in bed, Lucy will say “Cover the horses’ hooves up” “Cover up with a blanket”.

At swimming (weekly on a Friday), we never used to hear any comments from Lucy.  Now we hear “Jo go under the fountain”, “Alex is in the bubbles with Saoirse” “Emma is swimming with Harry” “I’ve got swimming water in my eyes”. She has recently started swimming on her back and so will say “Let’s see swimming toes.”  

Lucy rocks ‘joint attention’

Recently in a session with me, Lucy initiated joint attention.  This is a key developmental milestone (here comes the science bit): 'Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object. It is achieved when one individual alerts another to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indications. An individual gazes at another individual, points to an object and then returns their gaze to the individual.  It is important for many aspects of language development including comprehension, production and word learning.'

A video clip of the interaction can be viewed below

The following day, Lucy initiated joint attention again in a session with Jo.  She switched her gaze to the wall where some of her work is hung up.  Jo looked at Lucy to see what she was looking at and Lucy pointed to a picture and said "That doggy's got big ears".  Jo says Lucy's gaze caused her to look to where Lucy was pointing. Jo spotlighted that Lucy was right about the ears and when Jo looked back at her, Lucy was still looking at her and pointing……seeking Jo’s emotional reaction to her comment.

More joint attention was captured the next day: At 4:54ish, Lucy is pointing and sharing her thoughts about the page, then looking for Jo’s reaction.

Lucy’s ability to initiate joint attention and her explosion in language is likely to be a result of all the co-regulatory interactions we have been doing over the past year.  We know from research into typical development that thousands of hours of co-regulated interaction leads to joint attention.

On 12.10.16 there was a lovely moment during a transition when Matthew came into the room where Lucy was.  She looked straight at him and said 'Hello!'  When he left the room, she looked at him again and said 'Bye!'  She has not greeted other pupils before.

On 13.10.16 whilst Jo and Lucy were baking they were practicing different role sets.  It was Jo’s job to hold the bowl and Lucy’s turn to stir, when Lucy accidentally flicked the mixture onto Jo.  Jo said, "Ooh Lucy it would be better if you stirred it slowly because otherwise it all flicks out of the bowl" Lucy replied, "Sorry" whilst looking at Jo.  We have not heard Lucy say sorry before: she is now competent at making a verbal co-regulatory repair to get the interaction back on track.

She has not been taught to do this in a rote way, she has initiated it herself naturally because she has got the ‘why bother’ of interaction, it has ‘clicked’ for her…….we bother to say sorry when we make a mistake because it meets our communication partner’s needs and keeps the social engagement going. Lucy is now naturally motivated to engage *whoop!!*

On 18.10.16 whilst at horse-riding, Jo and Krista were eating lunch together and chatting whilst Lucy and Saoirse were finishing their lunch.  Jo heard "Thank you" which made her look down - Lucy was handing her an empty crisp packet. This was the first time Jo had heard Lucy take the initiative to say "Thank you" without prompts. Jo spotlighted this to Lucy, saying that it made her feel really happy and Lucy shared a smile back 🙂

Lucy rocks episodic memory

And last but by no means least, Lucy has recently demonstrated episodic memory recall. Here is the clip

We are reading Goldilocks and Lucy suddenly tells me that 'Krista got sore slide on the elbow on slide' (at a children's play centre, Krista (staff member) hurt her elbow on the slide). When I engage around this, Lucy tells me (with prosodic noises and actions) what Krista looked like going down the slide. She is tapping into the memory of the emotions encoded at the time of the interaction.

Episodic memories are autobiographical memories of events associated with emotions. Experiences of significance (often around competence) are initially spotlighted for us in the early years by our parents/caregivers, resulting in episodic memories being encoded.

Eventually we develop the ability to internalise this spotlighting and are able to encode these memories ourselves. They act as a bank of positive memories that we can use when confronted by a challenge or when we are anticipating doing something difficult. Our brains automatically search for a similar experience to a given challenge and we are able to use those feelings of success to enable us to have a go at it.

There is now a considerable body of research that shows that episodic memory is impaired in autism……no wonder our kids struggle with bouncing back from setbacks.

Another example of the laying down of an episodic memory, and how it naturally occurs within the interpersonal engagement between child and caregiver, is captured in this video clip of me cooking with my two boys. (They are so young in this clip!) They are trying to light the gas hob. Louis, my younger lad, struggles but eventually succeeds.

My older son, Philip, then has a go himself. Prior to working on resilience, Philip would have been reluctant to even try igniting the gas on the cooker – the uncertainty around ignition would have triggered the fight or flight response. After working on episodic memory by promoting and spotlighting competence, Philip is determined to keep trying when he doesn’t succeed at first. He mines episodic memories of overcoming similar challenges to enable him to remain resilient enough to keep going. He is eventually successful (one minute 55 seconds) and celebrates his competence in overcoming this challenge by turning to me to see my emotional reaction, and share his own.

I say: ‘Nice!’ and Louis says: ‘Philip did it!’ which are both spontaneous, natural spotlights, leading to the encoding of another episodic memory of competence for Philip.

Episodic memory is important for everyone in terms of learning, growing and managing more complex social and emotional situations in life. We use our memories to build and strengthen relationships, to reflect on what we’ve done in order to make plans for the future, and to problem solve based on past experiences. If we didn’t have these memories to draw from, we would hardly be able to move forward in life. Developing meaningful memories of this kind is a critical skill for all people including children with autism.

As we do things throughout our life, we are creating a story about ourselves through our episodic memories. We use this memory-derived self-narrative to share our experiences with others and to negotiate new situations in the future. With episodic memory, we can enter a new situation and figure out what to do because we remember a similar situation from our past.

Lucy is now in a place where she is beginning to encode her own episodic memories.  We can use what we know from RDI about creating episodic memories and checking that they have been encoded to support that development – an excellent foundation for the growth of further resilience.

Lucy’s ongoing progress is an absolute joy for all of us working at Bright Futures School.

Read Zoe's earlier posts about Lucy linked from her SNJ author page

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Zoe Thompson
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Zoe Thompson

Head of Development at Bright Futures School
Zoe Thompson is the Head of Development at Bright Futures School. At Bright Futures School, alongside the academic curriculum, we run a curriculum that helps to foster social and emotional development in children with autism. Recognising that autism is a developmental disorder, we use an approach that seeks to fill the developmental gaps that kids have missed out on. We work on a range of competencies including social referencing, joint attention, co-regulation and self-regulation.
Zoe Thompson
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