What is productive uncertainty in autism? In RDI , it is the uncertainty that a person with autism feels but continues despite the anxiety because they desire to see what comes next. There is a playful element to it but a degree of stress as well. For a child with autism, anything out of the ordinary or not in the usual format is too stressful. They will often shut down or react inappropriately to it. One thing that RDI works on is making the child feel comfortable with uncertainty. To actually desire it because you learn from it and are able to make positive episodic memories from it.
Sometimes, I haven’t been able to work a lot with Logan . To be completely honest, I have had this nagging worry in the back of my mind that I may be asking too much of him in times of upheaval in our lives.. I try really hard (probably too hard) to keep some things the same for his sake. A great example is when we go to Nana’s house, we still do our lessons. He still gets to watch his favorite show. He still does occupational therapy . You get the idea. While we have some uncertainty, I try to keep some sameness.
Even in the midst of turmoil, we can keep working on productive uncertainty.
- play board games together,
- sort as well as fold laundry together,
- do puzzles together
- cook together.
- rip paper to work on anticipation
Not everything needs to be planned though. Lots of productive uncertainly happens naturally. Your car overheats so you have to wait for a tow truck or someone to come get you. In both instances you are uncertain as to what will happen next. What is wrong with the car? How much money will it take to fix it? How are you getting to your other appointments that week? I talk all these questions out loud as we wait for someone to save us. Opening presents is another activity that draws upon productive uncertainty. What is in the package? What if we don’t like it? What are the social niceties that come along with opening presents? For the record, we didn’t require Logan to open presents in front of people until we had this skill mastered. This kept him from having to navigate the social aspects before he was ready. It also helped keep him from inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings if he didn’t like the present or already had it.
Productive uncertainty is needed to navigate many social situations. When we go to Lowry Park Zoo, it’s being comfortable with productive uncertainty that allows Logan to enjoy feeding the giraffes. Let’s face it. A live giraffe is unpredictable at best. It’s the same skill we draw upon anytime we are at Disney to play or learn. These are higher level examples of how this skill is important . Let’s look at an early example of how Logan accomplished it , shall we?
Years ago , there was a time when Nana couldn’t drive so we got to drive her pimped out Tahoe. We also drove it because we only had one car and Michael still needs to work. Anyway, Nana’s truck has a 6 disc cd player. In our world that is pimped out although it may be common for you. Logan always wanted to listen to the same songs over and over again in the same order. I tried to put it on random play but this always sent him over the edge. He couldn’t stand not knowing what song would play next. Not knowing made his anxiety too much for him. As much as it seemed irrational to me, I had to remember that it was very real to Logan.
We stopped at McDonald’s one weekend. Naturally, Madison purchased a happy meal. The new toy in the happy meal was a Kidz Bop CD. On the way to pt, the children wanted to put it in and listen to it. After listening to it a gazillion times, I nonchalantly hit random. Logan looked at me quizzically. I said “This makes it more interesting”. He smiled at me and left it. No meltdowns or anxiety. At that moment , he was content with the uncertainty of not knowing what song was coming next. Part of the reason it finally worked is that I acknowledged his uncertainty in previous encounters . He trusts that I will push him out of his comfort zone as well as be mindful of his limitations.
We didn’t reach this threshold overnight. It was a slow as well as tedious process. In times of high anxiety he will revert to everything being the same. That’s not uncommon for anyone. What he has accomplished though is the ability to roll with the punches , so to speak. It greatly improves his quality of life. In the end that’s all I ever want for him. I want him to live the best life he can even if he approaches it differently.