Today, I am privileged to feature an interview with Kamini Lakhani, founder – director of SAI center for Autistic children in Mumbai and a RDI consultant. I enjoy reading her blog posts and find them very promising and uplifting, a rare combination in our Autism world and work like a booster for Autism parents. When I found out she has written a book, I bought it right away and it was wonderful reading about ways to develop dynamic thinking in our children. In this interview, she answers many questions about RDI and many more.
Q) Would you like to share your Autism journey with our readers …
My autism journey began 25 years ago. Mohit was 3 years old when he was diagnosed. In those days the rates for autism were 1 in 10000.
I did not know what autism meant.
I only knew my world was crumbling.
I stormed out of the doctor’s office saying, ‘It can’t be. How dare you say this? Can’t you see how beautiful my son is?’
Later we went in for a detailed evaluation at Jai Vakeel. They confirmed the doctor’s suspicions through detailed observations and investigations. The first few months were a blur. My daughter, Tanya was only 5 months when Mohit was diagnosed. I went back to Seoul, South Korea where we lived at that time. There were hardly any English speaking therapists available. We received services from a Special Educator and a Speech Language Pathologist through the American school at the army base.
I wasn’t satisfied. I felt something was missing. So we decided to go to the US and get some training to help Mohit.
I got trained at the Lovaas Clinic in Los Angeles and began my ABA journey. I spent 5 hours a day working on discrete trials with Mohit. I got feedback from my supervisor every month after sending those big bulky tapes to her. We didn’t have the luxury of youtube then ☺
We made yearly trips to the US to get treatment for Mohit. We tried everything from AIT to Sensory Integration to Bio medical treatment. Yes, even swimming with dolphins.
My husband Anil, stood like my rock through all this.
My aim in life was to get rid of the autism diagnosis. I wanted to pull Mohit out of it. I wanted autism out of our lives.
A few years down the line, we relocated to Dubai. Mohit went to a resource room section of a good school. I was always blessed to have a wonderful aides supporting Mohit at school.
At that time, there were a series of Verbal Behavior workshops in Dubai. After attending these, I did a course with Dr Vince Carbone in New York. I decided to get certified as a BCaBA. (Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst).
By then we had moved back to India. While we were in South Korea, we had helped set up Sairam autism Center at Jai Vakeel School.
On moving back, we started SAI (Support for Autistic Individuals) to provide quality ABA services. We started with 2 students and 3 teachers and scaled our way to 50 students with about 25 staff members.
I could see that Mohit had plateaued. In fact, he seemed overwhelmed with all the language instruction. His head was always bent over. At that time a friend told me about RDI. I looked into it, attended a workshop with Dr Gutstein in Houston and embarked on my RDI journey with my first consultant, Joyce Albu.
RDI changed my life. I let go of this urgency to make Mohit something he was not. I let go of the pressure and instructions and our relationship improved by leaps and bounds.
And yes, I changed and became ‘myself’ again.
We then started SAI Connections – a center to provide RDI services to families. Soon after I was appointed Director for RDI Professional Training Services in India and the Middle East. Interested Professionals and Parents can become RDI Consultants in India itself. They need not travel to the US any more.
Mohit and my students have taught me a lot. I no longer look at autism as a disability. I look at it as a strength. I believe all autistic people have sophisticated brains. We have to figure out a way to teach them- as most of them don’t learn conventionally.
I’m not denying the challenges or underplaying them. I’ve experienced excruciating challenges too. But those challenges made me who I am.
I embrace my son and others on the spectrum fully. They’re my heroes.
Mohit is an artist, he paints beautifully. He does canvases and mixed media.
My daughter, Tanya is also an artist. She specializes in video genre and installations.
You can read more about my journey here.
Q) Loved your book Independence in Autism, tells us more about it and any plans to write more books?
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The book is about building dynamic intelligence in your autistic child. It’s about achieving independence for your child by teaching him to solve problems, being flexible and adaptable. It’s about building a beautiful bond with your child. More than anything else- it’s about hope.
We pay an immense amount of attention to static intelligence while teaching autistic individuals- questions which have one right answer.
For example- Name this (while showing an item), What color is this? How old are you? And various academic questions which have a single right answer.
While these are important, by themselves they will not lead to independence in individuals with autism and other special needs. That’s because life is unpredictable and situations keep changing. A child may have knowledge, but unless he is able to adapt or keep up with changes- he’s bound to face problems. It’s not just about how much he knows but how he solves problems as they arise.
Every parent wants the following for their child-
- Meaningful friendships and relationships
- Independent (as much as possible) living
- Being gainfully employed or holding down a job
Dynamic intelligence is the key to achieving the above.
It’s covered extensively in my ebook. (link)
To answer the second part of your question- Yes, I do plan to write more books.
I’d like to write about my journey – how it challenged and changed me. Also more about dynamic intelligence, the sophisticated autistic brain and the spiritual aspect of autism.
Q) Looking forward to reading your books Kamini. How does RDI improve the quality of life of our children?
RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) empowers parents immensely. In turn it impacts children. Every child on the Spectrum is unique. Every parent guides differently. RDI helps to set up a customized program for the family, so that parents can enjoy a meaningful relationship with their child.
Parents begin to understand why their children behave a certain way. They feel competent to handle their own children.
The family starts living life just like every other family.
A child with autism is not a burden- but a beautiful, valued member of the family.
Q) How essential is flexible thinking for our children?
Flexible thinking is the key. Life doesn’t go as planned. There are changes at every step of the way. We can teach our children what to do in a particular situation. But if the situation itself changes, what will the child do?
You and I are so used to this that we don’t give it a thought. For example: unexpected guests arrive at your doorstep at dinnertime. You’ve cooked for 3 people but now you have 3 additional people to feed. What would you do? Your mind immediately comes up with many options. You can pull out something from the freezer. Or you can cook up something very quickly. Or you can order in. You and I solve all of this in a jiffy.
Imagine your child on the autism spectrum. If she/he is faced with a situation which requires quick thinking and decision making- what happens? She/he would either freeze or go into a tantrum or meltdown.
Q) Tell us about the 45 second rule you mention in the book..
Oh, I love the 45 second rule. It’s a favorite. We tend to prompt immediately. We’re often task focused and want our children to get something ‘just right.’ We focus on the product.
But what if we shift to process? What if we say, I don’t just want my child to do something a particular way, I want him to think.
Set up a painting session with your child. Keep the paints, paper, brushes handy. But don’t keep any water around. Ask him to start painting. Most parents (and professionals) would start with, ‘what do you need?’ But wait, the child probably hasn’t yet registered something is missing.
Just wait. Let’s just see what he does. Wait for upto 45 seconds. That’s a long time. What does your child do?
He may try to paint without adding water- but he will not get too far. Does he realize something’s missing?
Give him 45 seconds. If he doesn’t then add a statement, which will help him think further. “Hmmm… I wonder why you’re not able to paint.”
Focus on the question. Don’t prompt with an answer or point or look towards a water source immediately. Watch his behavior. He may be on edge. Support him. Say, “ Something’s missing, isn’t it?” Wait again for a few seconds. Watch him closely. What does he do? Does he go to get some water?
Watch yourself too. You may be getting anxious and a little agitated too. Remain calm. You’re working on something big. You’re helping your child to think and problem solve. You’re working on his resilience.
You’re challenging him and yet you’re there with him to ensure he doesn’t break down. Do this a few times. If he still does not get the water, go with him to fetch it. You gave him time. You worked on a process. You’re setting your child up for success.
Q) A few tips on how to increase dynamic thinking in our children..
Be patient. Prime yourself to be calm. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Don’t be hasty to prompt.
Focus on the question and not the answer.
Believe in your child and his capability.
Don’t set up everything perfectly for your child. Don’t make life easy for him. Give him the responsibility to problem solve and come up with situations.
Q) Can RDI be used with children who are nonverbal?
Yes, absolutely. And very successfully too. Just because a child does not talk, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand.
It just means expression is difficult for him.
At Sai Connections, we work with many non verbal individuals.
They’re smart, caring and capable individuals.
Q) A few examples how RDI can be implemented..
RDI can be implemented through simple activities that your family engages in.
Involve your child in what you do. Give him a role.
If you make your bed, let him help you with it.
If you do dishes- give him a role. You may soap them and he could rinse them. Read together, go for walks together.
RDI is a lifestyle. It’s a way of being with your child.
Q) You frequently write about how to bond with your autistic child, tell us more about that..
When we’re faced with the autism diagnosis- we want to get out of it asap. We want our child to become normal. So we start teaching. We either spend long hours trying to teach the regular curriculum to our kids or we drive them from therapy to therapy.
We forget about the parent – child relationship. It’s more about making your child into someone you want him to be. This is what happened to me.
As a mother of a child on the Spectrum (now an adult. Mohit is 28). I focused on working on skills and language from the time Mohit was diagnosed. I trained at the Lovaas Clinic in Los Angeles so I could work with him. My days were filled with putting in 5 hours of language drills every day.
I became Mohit’s teacher. His autism consumed all my waking hours. The deficits of autism glared at me every single day. The mother and child relationship took a back seat.
We started RDI when Mohit was 17. RDI changed our lives forever. I finally learned to relax and let go of my grief. I stopped trying to extract stuff from him. I let him be himself.
In turn, Mohit flourished and showed us facets of his personality we weren’t even aware about. It brought about normalcy in our family life.
From a teacher, I took my rightful role of being a mother.
I was able to build a deeper bond with my daughter too.
Q) Do you provide online training for RDI for parents from other cities?
Yes, we do. We require the family to come to Mumbai for 5 days for a detailed assessment. Once the assessment is in place, we work through weekly skype meetings. This model works well for us.
Feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ll reply very quickly.
Q) What are the services you provide at SAI? Tell us about the training programs too..
SAI /SAI Connections were setup to provide support for families affected by autism. Respect and dignity for autistic individuals are the cornerstones.
We provide the following services:
- The Family Consultation Program – We are the only organization in the world that houses 4 RDI Consultants. Our aim is to reach out and empower as many families as possible.
2. RDI Professional Training – I’m the authorized Director for Professional Training in India and the Middle East. People no longer need to travel to the US to become RDI Consultants. They can become consultants here in India itself. Certificates are awarded from RDI connect, USA.
3. SAI Café – This is our patisserie. It provides assisted employment to people on the spectrum. Our students bake cookies, cakes, breads. We fill orders in Mumbai at present.
4. SAI Canteen – Snacks and wholesome food is prepared by our students. We supply to individuals and offices,organizations in the area.
5. Prevocational activites – Our students make the most beautiful envelopes and other decorative items.
6. Customized education plans for younger children with autism.
Q) Are the gluten free foods available on your website made by children at your center?
Yes, they are. They’re made under the guidance of our teachers.
Q) Life of a sibling becomes tough, any suggestions on how we can help them ..
I can’t emphasize how important this is. I’ve lived through this so I can share with you.
When Mohit was diagnosed with autism, my life did a 180 degree turn. I just wanted to pull him out of autism. I was pressured by the ‘age 7’ theory- if he doesn’t ‘recover’ by age 7 then he’s never going to recover.
My daughter, Tanya was only 5 months when Mohit was diagnosed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t present for her- the way I should have been. Things are better now- Tanya studies in the US and is on the verge of completing her graduation.
If I could redo only 1 thing in my life, it would be- spend more time with Tanya.
My message to parents- please give quality time to your other children as well. Take them out alone, talk to them, get to know about their lives and their feelings.
Siblings of people on the spectrum are beautiful. They’re understanding and compassionate. Please nurture them.
Q) Your pearls of wisdom for autism parents …
Never, ever give up hope.
Be that supportive parent who nurtures and cherishes the beautiful child in front of you.
Your child cannot fit into a box because he’s much bigger than the box.
He’s been blessed with an exceptional mind.
Believe me, don’t get carried away by the stims or behaviors or lack of speech.
Your child is much more than that.
See your child for who he really is, in his magnificence and glory
I know, it’s not easy. But in supporting your child, you’ll discover yourself.
I hope you found this interview as informative and enlightening as I have. I admire parents who are path breakers and willing to walk the extra mile to help other parents. To conclude the interview, here is a beautiful message from Kamini on the backdrop of Mohit’s painting.
Wishing you all the very best Kamini!
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