Any time we are faced with a difficult situation, or if something keeps us from doing what we are planning to do, we come to a crossroads. We think: What should I do next? What are my choices? How does one option compare to another? This can include big problems, such as what to do after losing a job, but it also comes into play in the small decisions we make day-to-day. For example, when driving to work, what route do we take? If there is a traffic jam, do we take a different route? How do we decide? Or, if an item breaks, how do we decide whether to fix it or throw it away? If we decide to fix it, how do we do it? New batteries? Scotch tape? Glue? There are so many decisions we make moment to moment based on what we know about possible outcomes. Furthermore, we make most of these seemingly small decisions in a calm, deliberate manner, and don’t expect perfection. We know that often, good enough is okay. So much of what we do depends on our subjective appraisal, and our subjective appraisal is based on our previous experiences, or episodic memory.
Now, let’s think about children with autism. Often, problems are addressed when they are at crisis level. If we go back to our trip to Boston: maybe the child is screaming because he was planning to take the T and it has broken down. Or, maybe he is expecting to go to a particular restaurant in the North End, but it is closed for renovations. Maybe he lost his souvenir from the Swan Boats. In these moments, when expectations are not met, a child with ASD has trouble coping and emotions escalate. We may then address the particular problem by writing a social story, creating a behavior plan or explaining to the child why it is not a big deal. These strategies can certainly help, but they are reacting to a particular problem rather than proactively teaching kids how to cope with the unexpected in life.
We can help our kids with ASD become on-line problem solvers by including them in our own problem solving opportunities day-to-day, when there is no crisis around events that are not emotionally charged. Using declarative language, we can invite children to understand how we are thinking as we approach a problem. We can model how we are not looking for the perfect solution, but are satisfied with “good enough”. As we include children in these moments, we are building their episodic memory around managing challenging situations. We are mindfully helping them form memories by including them in moments they may have otherwise missed. Then, when a similar but different problem comes their way in the future, we can help them pull memories from our shared experiences: “Oh! Your toy isn’t working. Hmmm… I remember when my watch stopped working. We figured out it just needed new batteries. Let’s see if your toy needs new batteries.” Or, “Oh – you can’t find your doll. Hmmm … I remember last week when I lost my wallet. That was scary! But after we retraced my steps, we found it in the car. Let’s see if we can retrace your steps.”
It is important to remember that building episodic memory is a process that unfolds. It does not happen overnight, but as we see children with ASD use their episodic memories to problem solve, there is no doubt it was worth the wait. Using episodic memory to increase problem solving abilities and experience sharing are main goals of Relationship Development Intervention®. RDI consultants guide parents on how to authentically include their child in these moments day-to-day so that episodic memory can develop.