Monday, April 19, 2010

Helping Your Child's Communication: Get out of the "Overcompensation Trap"


Many parents of children with autism unknowingly overcompensate for their child's deficits in communication competence. Often parents (and other communication partners), without consciously realizing, do most of the "work" in keeping the social exchange going. The child may initiate communication, but walk away without waiting for a response. The parent will then follow the child around in an attempt to keep the communication going. Or, the child may speak, but not be oriented toward the partner. The parent may then move his body or face toward the child in order to maintain the social connection. Parents who have challenges “getting a response” from their child may frequently prompt the child for language, believing that prompting for a response is the "only way" to have a relationship with their child. Parents may also believe that, given enough prompting, their child will “eventually” learn to have a typical conversation without prompting. Alternatively, parents may continually try to adapt to the child’s interests or agenda in an effort to establish or maintain a social connection.

Parents, think again! In continually adapting to your child or being overly directive with him, you are reinforcing his feeling that other people will do most of the "work" in the communication exchange - either by directing the exchange for him or by adapting to him. You are promoting the idea of a social exchange as a controlled or controlling encounter by one partner or the other. You are in what I call the "overcompensation trap."


There are many things that you, the parent, can do to start getting out of the overcompensation trap and help your child learn to do more of the "work" in communicating. Here are a few:

1. THINK about how much work you vs. the child are doing in initiating communication or keeping the communication going. You may come to the conclusion that you are doing most or all the work. This revelation is empowering in itself. It should lead you to ask: How can I help my child to take on more of the responsibility in the communication exchange?

True social communication, after all, is a balanced exchange, with both partners doing more or less an equal share in keeping the exchange going and adapting to each other's topical agenda and emotional state. In a real-life social situation, each partner is continuously adapting to the mental state and needs of the social partner(s), while being mindful of his own mental state and needs. The social encounter that unfolds represents something completely novel, borne of out of this continuous mutual adaptation. Such mutual adjustment is referred to as social "coregulation." In autism, coregulation often is lacking due to the child's difficulties with adapting to the needs and mental state of the social partner. Thus, the social encounter is often one-sided, and the result is often based on the agenda of the parent only, or the child only, but not both together.

For more reading about coregulation, parents are encouraged to read Alan Fogel's book "Developing Through Relationships," one of the works that inspired the RDI® Program. The book may be purchased through the website.

2. SLOW DOWN to think and to let your child think. Parents sometimes believe that prompting or maintaining a lot of language is the key to their child's progress. This is not the case if the language is not the result of productive thought or "mindfulness." True social communication involves thinking and responding flexibly within social exchanges which, in most cases, don't involve direct prompts. It is important for parents to build the child's competence in flexible and creative thinking during social exchanges, not merely building proficiency in responding to prompted language or using social scripts. Slowing down the pace of your communication and waiting before you speak or respond to the child's communication will allow you time to think about the encounter, moment to moment, and will allow your child critical time to think and problem solve under your guidance.

3. REQUIRE MORE than just words in the communication exchange. Some parents accept a communication exchange that is solely language based. They may talk at the back of the child's head or accept a communication exchange with a child who is running away, bouncing around the room, or climbing all over the parent. Parents who accept such limited exchanges may feel that their child can never be competent with true social communication, which involves many "channels" of communication used simultaneously. These channels include not only language, but also facial communication, vocal prosody, gestures, body language, personal space, etc.


In addition to being an RDI Program Certified Consultant, I am a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. Our family has been involved in an RDI program for about five years. So how do I make sure that I am not falling into the overcompensation trap myself?

I have learned to raise the bar in my mind as to what my son's potential is in communication competence. I have learned to create and spot opportunities for my son to be challenged to be a better communicator. I focus on his thought process through the encounter. And afterwards, I replay the incident in my mind to assess: What did I learn? What did HE learn? Let me give an example of a situation I have encountered in the past with my son:

•Matt begins to talk to me, face to face, and then walks away from me into another room, while continuing to talk.

•I am tempted to follow him to hear what he is saying. I am also tempted to prompt him to come back into the room. But I stop myself. I think about the concept of communicative balance and partners having equal responsibility to maintain interactions and repair breakdowns. I think: Whoa! He is disconnecting from me facially and physically. He is causing a breakdown in our communication exchange. So, I must not overcompensate. I must let him REPAIR this disconnection. I WILL NOT do it for him.

•I realize that there is a Stage 3 RDI® child objective that addresses this very issue. The objective relates to the child’s understanding that communication partners must be both physically and mentally available in the communication exchange in order for the exchange to be effective. This is a mental discovery that a typical child makes by the time he or she is three years old.

•What do I do to scaffold or assist my son in making this discovery? For the moment, I do NOTHING. I just stand there, silently, rooted to the spot. And I wait. I am intending to create a situation of PRODUCTIVE UNCERTAINTY for him, a state of consciousness in which he feels a mental tension and is challenged to respond in a flexible manner, but not obligated to do so.

•Within about twenty seconds, he feels the uncertainty. He realizes that he is talking at the air; his communication partner is no longer within range. The communication exchange has broken down. So he must make a decision. If he wants to repair the communication, he must do the work. He must seek me out.

•He does. He walks back to me. He continues talking. I say nothing. I let him finish. I wait to make sure he is attending me. Then I say "I missed the part where you walked away from me." Again, he experiences productive uncertainty. What should he do? He has to decide. If he wants to repair the communication exchange, he has to figure out what part I missed and repeat it. But he is not forced to. He is free to say "Oh, that's too bad!" and walk away if he wants to! He is free to respond any way he wishes. My only requirement is that he processes and thinks about MY communication to him.

•He chooses to repeat the part of his story I missed, and the conversation continues. I do not praise him for anything he said or did. We just keep talking. (At times I may praise him for his accomplishments. I don’t praise his behavior; rather, I spotlight (emphasize) his competence as a thinker.)

In the above example, I first needed to be mindful about my own thought process and actions, in order to allow my son to make new mental discoveries. I needed to think about the three principles above. I needed to keep myself from falling into the overcompensation trap.

What did my son learn based on my thoughtful responses to his behavior? With the deliberate scaffolding from me, he learned that he can recognize and successfully repair communication breakdowns without being directly prompted to do so. He demonstrated a step toward greater competence as a communicator.


Any parent can do what I do. However, for most, it takes effort to learn to recognize and make use of learning opportunities throughout daily life with your child. In many cases parents need to “retrain” their brains to stop thinking about task completion and behaviors as end goals and to think instead about the child’s mental processes. This is where RDI® Program certified consultants come in. RDI® consultants guide parents in the process of retraining their brains so that they can be effective guides to their child’s cognitive development. RDI® consultants help parents become aware of the areas in which they may be overcompensating for their child's communication deficits. Consultants train parents in the level of support or scaffolding that provides optimal learning opportunities for their child. Consultants also train parents in ways to frame or structure guided learning situations so as to minimize distractions and maximize the chance for new mental processes to develop. Finally, consultants teach parents how to identify and "spotlight" key learning moments so that the new mental discovery and feeling of competence will be captured in the child's memory.

My son is quite a competent communicator now (although he has not always been!) and needs minimal framing, scaffolding and spotlighting. Most children, however, would need higher levels of support for optimal learning. RDI® consultants customize parent training to account for the level of support the child needs at any point in time for successful cognitive development.

Parents do not have to be stuck in the overcompensation trap any longer! Changing the approach to the way you interact with your child can make all the difference in his or her mental development and long-term outcome. If you would like to be empowered to make such a difference for your child, contact an RDI® Program Certified Consultant for more information about The RDI® Program for autism remediation. See for list of consultants by area. Long-distance consulting is also available for families in areas with no local consultant.


  1. I just wanted to thank you for posting these RDI basics. They are so helpful and even though I don't tell you often, I really appreciate it and I send others to your blog. Rhonda

  2. Thanks Rhonda, I appreciate the positive feedback!