Monday, July 20, 2009

Apprenticeship and Cake Decorating

When I think of the word "apprentice", I think of learning a trade. When I graduated from high school, some of my class members chose apprenticeship programs to learn a trade.

Apprentices are people who desire to learn from, to let themselves be guided by an expert.

Apprenticeship programs are live and in person. They're not correspondence courses or long distance learning programs. They don't rely on repetitive, rote memorization and drills. There's an active participation on the part of the apprentice, hands on, while learning.

The experts gradually hand over more and more responsibility to the apprentices, as the apprentices are ready for more responsibility.

Interestingly, Barbara Rogoff studied child development, and she describes how, in early child development, children apprentice their parents. One of her books is titled, "Apprenticeship in Thinking". She uses a phrase, "guided participation" that describes the relationship between a parent and a child.

In autism, that relationship between parent and child is off track. RDI(r) has a huge emphasis on restoring apprenticeship, on restoring the parent/child relationship, establishing the parent as the guide or expert, and the child as the willing apprentice.

In autism, we see our children controlling everything around them. Taking over. Unable to be guided. Unable to be an apprentice. Interestingly, the most popular intervention ignores the lack of apprenticeship in autism and focuses solely on behavior as a replacement.


A couple of years ago, a Wilton cake decorating class gave me an opportunity to be an apprentice for a few weeks. The first session was a lesson in making icing. The certified instructor made a recipe of icing for us, right there in class.

Being an RDI(r) mom, I thought about all of the mental processes that were involved. Taking the class really illuminated for me a lot of the processes that RDI(r) sets back in motion in a family.

I had to acknowledge the Wilton instructor as the guide, the expert. (I wouldn't ask my next door neighbor whose business is snow removal and lawn care to teach me to decorate a cake!)

I had to understand that making icing is about more than the rote following of a recipe. (Flexible thinking, creative problem solving)

I had to be able to share attention with the instructor, to look where she was looking and to see what she wanted me to see, and to simultaneously process her words and her actions. (Reciprocity, attention sharing, attention shifting, broadband communication) **Interestingly, not ONCE did she utter the words, "Look at me!" followed by, "Do this!"

I had to be able to see what she spotlighted for me, and why. At first, the icing was quite thick and firm, and the instructor explained that this icing was the right consistency for some tasks but not others. She allowed us to feel the consistency. She shared with us from her experience and we had to share attention with her. (Attention shifting, attention sharing, perspective taking)

She thinned the icing with water to a new consistency, and again, allowed us to feel it as she described what icing in that consistency can be used for.

And she thinned it yet again.

Each step, the instructor was watching us for feedback. (reciprocity) Were there questions on our faces? (non-verbal, 2-way communication) Had everyone seen the step? She paced her lesson in a way that she knew we'd all seen each step, understood, and were ready to move forward.

There were a dozen or so students at the table. Not one of us tried to take control of the lesson and guide it ourselves. Not one of us tried to change the lesson into something else. We had established the guide as an expert to apprentice, we trusted her to guide us, and we chose to apprentice her through not just that lesson, but one night a week for a month.

And then she handed the responsibility to us. We were expected to return to class in a week with the proper icing consistencies to begin to learn to decorate a cake.

When a child on the autism spectrum isn't a good apprentice, the tendency is to take over for their part of the attention, too, prompting, pushing, always trying to force compliance in place of joining and apprenticeship. Skills and academics take a front seat, while the lack of joint attention is ignored.
Or we follow the child's lead, and the child still doesn't learn to apprentice a guide.

I had used the behavioral route for so long, I had lost sight of what apprenticeship looked and felt like. Choosing to become an apprentice, a student in a cake decorating class, helped me to define and visualize what, exactly, I wanted to go back and re-do, and why, in terms of remediating the core deficits of a child on the autism spectrum.

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