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Sharon Sargeant: Autism – Thinking In Shades of Grey

In this week’s episode, I’m joined by Sharon Sargeant. Sharon’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism and speech and language disorders when she was three years old. This diagnosis led Sharon to seek solutions and found Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and ultimately set up her own business, Autism Thinking in Shades of Grey, helping other families here in the UK.

We discuss the challenges she faced getting a diagnosis and help for her daughter nearly 30 years ago, the transformation her daughter went through and how Sharon came to start her own business. 

Episode Highlights:

  • (01:21) When Sharon noticed signs that her daughter might need extra support
  • (06:58) When Sharon discovered RDI
  • (10:52) The powerful effect that the training had on her daughter 
  • (13:52) Becoming an RDI business owner
  • (17:06) The amazing progress her daughter has made using RDI
  • (20:31) How Sharon works with her clients
  • (23:35) Advice she would give caregivers who think their child might need extra help
  • (26:04) The advice she would give her younger self

About Sharon Sargeant:

Sharon Sargeant runs Autism Thinking in Shades of Grey. 

Sharon’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism, speech and language disorder and learning disorder when she was three years of age.  It was through trying to help her daughter that Sharon found Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), a US based programme, back in 2004.  The changes in her daughter’s ability to communicate and her motivation to interact with her family, in such a short space of time after implementing RDI spurred her on to begin to train as an RDI Consultant in early 2005 so that she could help other families within the UK

Connect with Sharon:

Website: https://autismthinkinginshadesofgrey.co.uk/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ThinkinginShadesofGrey 



Hello, and welcome to the Midlife Business Show with Suzanne Mountain. This is the podcast that celebrates all those of us who are building a business during our middle years. I’m an ex corporate girl who started my business six years ago in my fifties. And I’m loving it. This podcast is here to inspire you with conversations with other entrepreneurs about the messy and magical ups and downs of this period of our lives. Plus, I’ll be sharing simple, actionable step by step strategies to help you build a business with impact and a life that you love

Suzanne (00:05):

So welcome to the Midlife Business Show today’s guest is Sharon Sergeant. Sharon’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with autism and speech and language disorders when she was three years old. And this led Sharon to seek solutions and find relationship development, intervention, RDI, and ultimately to set up her own business autism thinking in shades of gray, helping other families here in the UK. Welcome Sharon.

Sharon (01:12):

Hi Suzanne.

Suzanne (01:13):

It’s good to have you here. I’m looking forward to speaking with you today. So when did you first notice that your daughter needed extra support?

Sharon (01:23):

My sister was born when I was nearly 16, and so I had an idea of child development early on from being hands on with her upbringing while I was still at home. And, um, I noticed that my daughter, when she was just over a year old, there was things that were just a little off. She stopped listening to her name. Basically she would be often I would have to chase her to try and get her attention at all. She didn’t, she stopped sleeping as well. So that was a big concern. Like she’d sleep two hours a day any time during the day. So if I’d been out in the car and she’d be asleep, I would be really lucky if she slept more than about 20 minutes that night.

Suzanne (02:15):

Oh yeah. That must have been quite difficult.

Sharon (02:18):

It was hard going.

Suzanne (02:19):

Mm I’m sure. So you spotted, you know, these signs that you felt your instincts were telling you, weren’t what you were expecting. What routes did you go down next?

Sharon (02:32):

So initially I went to the health visitor, cuz I was in touch with the health visitor anyway, and then the GP, um, for them to do assessments. And from that, they then put me in touch with the local hospital, the pediatrician and there was a speech and language therapist attached to that department. There were a group that had just been set up by the hospital where so many children were just suddenly starting to be diagnosed with autism. 

So they had like a, a group where they could do an observation of us as parents and of the children and the speech and language therapist could actually give some input. And there was an educational psychologist there as well. Uh, yeah, no a clinical psychologist, but we didn’t get any like answers from that. They were just basically observing what was going on. And the pediatrician had said to me, she may be on the autism spectrum.

Sharon (03:33):

She may not. Now back then, I didn’t even have clue what autism was. We are talking nearly 30 years ago. And then as I sort of looked into it, the nearest I knew was the, uh, rain man. And I thinking, well, I’d seen that film, but I couldn’t even really remember it. And it didn’t correlate either because that was all caused by shock and whatever and so I started to try to find out. Well, I need not knowing was worse than, and having a label given she might be, she might not be. 

So I was like literally watching every move she made to see what does that fit? Does that not fit? 

And then I heard about a center called Elliot House, back then that was the people that actually diagnosed autism in the UK. They were the professionals to do that, but you couldn’t just like make an appointment and go and see them or pay privately.

Sharon (04:28):

You had to go through your GP. And fortunately my GP knew what a state I was in basically. And she put forward a recommendation for us and we went and my daughter was diagnosed over, um, a day, sort of came away and, and basically they said, you know that, uh, yes, she’s on the spectrum. She’s more responsive to you as her parents than she is to us as professionals.

 I said, well, you know, what do I do from here? Are there any courses or any books or anything because I’d come from the IT world where there was a book on a course for everything. 

And um, they basically said, no, there’s, there’s nothing out there. We advise you to keep her with you during the day. Involve her in everything that you are doing. And, and the learning will come from that. 

And I’m thinking I have a little girl that I, I, I just cannot get in contact with, you know, she’s basically she’s there, but she’s not there. And, um, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing to try and engage her. She’s, she’s just not. She would sit on a pile of books and hum to herself while I’m talking to her and I’m, I’m lost. What, what do I do now?

Suzanne (05:51):

Mm mm-hmm <affirmative> I mean, you know, I have a daughter of a very similar age and I don’t think I’d even heard of autism when my own daughter was three years old, maybe just sort of coming into my awareness, but it certainly wasn’t something like, like we hear about now, was it?

Sharon (06:13):

No, absolutely not back then. It, autism was diagnosed as one in 10,000. And from going to local autistic, um, society branches, it was a case of the records just weren’t kept because they didn’t realize that they needed to. Yeah. So  it was more prevalent than that. It’s just that there was no information being recorded and, and it was basically not long after my daughter was diagnosed, that those records started to be put in place.

Suzanne (06:44):

Yeah. I mean, often these things come down to, you know, education and awareness, don’t they? And then yeah having adequate systems and processes to keep records. So tell me more about how you came to find RDI in particular.

Sharon (07:01):

It was a lot of years later. I mean, basically when she was diagnosed, the experts said don’t pick up any books because the books blamed the mother because that’s what was known about autism back then. Really helpful!

Suzanne (07:15):

Um, yeah. And I sort of bypassed that and thought I need something, I’ve gotta find something that’s gonna help me. 

They basically put me in touch with the national autistic society, but even back then, that was so, so bare. The information that they had, they just basically sent out a leaflet and said, you know, this is how autism presents, but they really didn’t have that much information back then. And I picked up a book in, um, a local big library by Bernard Rimland. And that was the first that I actually got a proper glimpse of what professionals thought of as autism and some of the things that they were saying to look out for and things, it was quite hard reading, but it was from that that I thought, right. Okay. Well, I’ve got to find whatever it is to help her.

Sharon (08:04):

Now, there was no internet, um, that was still in the process of coming into play. So there really wasn’t much information out there. And it was another, uh, nine years before I actually found RDI. And that was from a Yahoo group where people were discussing this new treatment, this RDI treatment. 

And from that,  I ordered the books that had just been published, read those, ordered a video over from America, um, because RDI is U.S. based and then booked onto a four day parent training.  

And thinking, well, I’m going all the way over to America for this four day parent training and taking the kids and someone to look after the kids while we were on the four days may as well, put everything in there, find an RDI consultant and book everything up. So we actually went to America for three weeks, had a holiday in there as well, went to Disney with the kids and got ourselves so that we would be as soon as we came back, up and running, ready to get going on RDI. So that’s how I found out and got the program.

Suzanne (09:14):

I mean, that shows amazing commitment, doesn’t it, to finding something that’s gonna help and, really going all in to make it happen for your daughter. So you go out to the States, there’s you and your husband and three children in tow. Was it at that say yeah, three plus someone to look after them. So it’s no mean feat it’s, you know, quite a big thing, isn’t it? When did you start to get a signal that this was working or, might help your daughter?

Sharon (09:46):

Actually out on the fourth day parent training on the second day, Dr. Sheely and Dr. Gutstein are the founders of RDI. And I was in Dr. Sheely’s work group and she was talking about something called declarative communication, which is basically making comments rather than asking questions. When you have a child that’s giving you very little feedback, you start to default into questioning what their knowledge is and asking questions to try and get some response. 

So there’s a lot of instructing, a lot of asking questions. And she talked about turning that around and using declarative, uh, communication. So lots of comments and lots of spaces for a response to be given back. And when we came back off the training, we spoke with the tutor that we’d taken with us to look after the children during the day, and explain to her about the difference in this communication, because it was very different to what we had been doing up until, or now. 

That evening we went to a Chinese restaurant and in the Chinese restaurant, they had like these lanterns. All different ones hanging from the ceiling, these Chinese lanterns and our tutor just made a comment about them.

Sharon (11:09):

She said, um, I’ve got one of those in my bedroom at home. And we waited and we were told that you could wait up to 45 seconds for a response. And after almost literally on that 45th second, my daughter responded with, ‘I like the purple one’. 

That was the most spontaneous comment we’d had from her ever and she was 12

 And we thought, right, okay, we’re onto something. So this was on the second day of the training. We felt like we’ve got something here, there’s something in this and we need to pursue it.

Suzanne (11:46):

Gosh. How did it feel to sit there? And actually, you know, for the first time, you tried something, even though it was a long time to wait, to get that sort of positive reinforcement,

Sharon (11:59):

It was really motivating. I mean, it just really felt like, okay,  I am doing the right thing.

 All this money, we are putting into this and all this time I was putting in, but then we actually got that response and thought,  there’s something here. There’s something to latch onto and move with.

Suzanne (12:19):

Amazing. So the next step from there was then to meet with the individual consultant. Was it?

Sharon (12:27):

Yeah, we went from the training, was in Atlanta and then we flew to Virginia to meet our, RDI consultant. And basically she did an assessment looking at our interaction with our daughter separately, one to one, and then she spent some time with her on her own. 

And then she actually put together a program for us to try to put into place with her direction, uh, while we were with her. And then we were given goals to come away with and everything after that was like videos. So back then it was sending DVDs through the post and then being on the other end of the phone for our consultations. 

So that was before technology caught up and did things like Zoom, which makes life so much easier. 

And, then as we moved on, we were able to upload videos and 10 minute videos would be running overnight. 24 hours to upload for her to be able to look at, but you know, that was as it was back then, and we still made progress from doing it that way.

Suzanne (13:39):

Brilliant. I mean, yeah technology has really assisted with these types of things, hasn’t it?

 So how did you make the leap from, you know, being an RDI parent to being an RDI business owner?

Sharon (13:54):

Basically the things that we started to see from that first, well, that second day of that training, and then from the consultation and the ongoing, the changes that were happening felt rapid. 

Like to me, they felt rapid because we’d been stuck for so long, but I just felt like, okay, there’s something here. I need to bring this to the UK. If this is happening and helping my child in, in this way, then I just need to bring it here. 

And my RDI consultant was really supportive. And between us, what was mainly I put it in motion, but she came over and between us, we actually did like, a conference where I gave the parental side. And, um, she gave the practitioner side for up to a hundred people. Well, it was more than that, just over a hundred people were in the audience, which is the first time I’d ever done <laugh> anything like that.

Sharon (14:49):

But because I had the footage and it was my daughter and you know, it was so easy to actually be able to do this presentation. 

So the consultant I was working with, coming up to doing this presentation had been trying to encourage me. She was saying, you know your grasping this really well. And I think that you could help other people in the UK. And have you thought about being a consultant? 

And I said, actually I want to know more because I want to be able to help my daughter more. I want more understanding. So I was gonna go through the training because I wanted that understanding. But also because I felt like it’s too good to not spread the word to not help other people. And so we were already in discussion of that. And then we did the presentation and in that she actually announced to the room that I was gonna be training to be a UK RDI consultant. Well, there’s no going back now.

Suzanne (15:46):

<laugh>, she’s a very wise woman. I suspect <laugh>.

Sharon (15:53):

So then I think from memory, that was, oh, I can’t remember, but it was a few months later that I’ve already signed up for the initial training. And I had to go over to Houston, Texas to do the first lot of training. So I was out there for about six days. And on the back of that, there was meant to be the next part of the training because of being the international. You could do both the beginners and the intermediate training at the same time while I was out there, there was a hurricane so I had to fly home. <laugh> <laugh> The beginning training was there in place and, uh, then the bit that had been missed was attached to the advanced training. So I had to go back out to America again for the advanced training and in between I had, um, 18 months worth of supervision and from a certified RDI consultant on overseeing my working with case study groups. 

Suzanne (16:56):

Excellent. Excellent. And, um, I understand there was a big occasion in the family last year. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that?

Sharon (17:06):

Yeah. Before we started RDI, I’m just gonna go back a bit before we started RDI, my daughter was completely prompt, dependent. She would do just enough of anything to get me off her back. 

So just enough to get me to leave her alone and not try to interact. She had sort of scripted words, but she really only used language just to get her needs met. She was highly, highly dependent. 

And from RDI, we got her to the point last year where she actually got married to her fiance who she’d been living with for three, I think it was three years at that point because COVID kept putting the wedding back and she’s now been in her job that she’s got for six years. 

So we’ve gone from this child, even at 12, she was more like a five year old, if you like, because of the way that she carried herself and her words. Yeah,she was more like, um, a five year old to the point where from using RDI, she became this independent young lady and knew what she wanted. 

She decided at some point where she’d had no real interest in friends or other people, she decided she wanted to have friends. She decided she wanted to have a boyfriend. Um, he wasn’t her first boyfriend. Um, so it’s not like she just settled, but

Suzanne (18:36):

<laugh> yeah, that one all do <laugh>

Sharon (18:40):

And um, they decided that they wanted to live together and they wanted to get married and well, initially they just wanted to get married and we encouraged them to live together first.

Suzanne (18:49):

Yeah. Yeah. Always sound advice, I think

Sharon (18:52):

<laugh>. Yeah. Um, and they basically, he has special needs too. He’s not on the autistic spectrum though there’s some traits, but they bounce off one another. So where she’s still got speech and language issues, he sort of steps into that. But from what we’ve been doing with RDI, she’s really good at problem solving. And so when he gets a little bit rigid and stuck, she’s able to help him to see the bigger picture.

Suzanne (19:22):

That’s so lovely, isn’t it? And, you know, that’s what all good relationships should be about, isn’t it playing to your strengths, but yes, such a testament to how far she’s come. What a wonderful day you must have had.

Sharon (19:36):

It was absolutely fabulous and more so because it was the first time in ages anybody was able to meet up. So there’s a hundred people in the room from both sides of the family and friends. And it was just amazing. I mean, it would’ve been amazing anyway, just the fact that she, cuz I’d never dreamt in a million years, that she would get married. But the fact that we can actually all come together and, and enjoy and just hanging out with people

Suzanne (20:06):

Rather than yeah. After the pandemic, I think, yeah. You know, we’re all so much more aware of how precious those occasions are. Aren’t we, where we took them for granted a bit before. Amazing. 

So let’s talk a bit about your business. How do you work with your clients? 

So we’ve talked a little bit about technology, but, but perhaps explain a bit about how that works with your clients now.

Sharon (20:33):

Um, a lot of the work that I do is now online. I can see clients in person, but because of the factor of travel and everything, it actually makes more sense to be able to do online work. 

And basically what happens is the family. I ask them to gimme some baseline footage to work from. And from that, I start to devise how the program would work for them, because the program isn’t cookie cutter. It’s like for each individual family and each individual on the spectrum and how that works out. So from that initial footage and from reports that they’ll share with me and conversations that we have, I start to devise a program for them. And then what they need to do is work on their goals between the two weeks of our consultations. So they will film some video of working on their goals with their child, or they might be goals that they have to work on, on their own.

Sharon (21:37):

And then they will give me that information ready for our next consultation. And in between when they do that, I will give them written feedback. But in our consultation we then decide, do we need to work on this area a little bit more in a slightly different way? Or are we ready to move on to the next area? Okay. And so that how it’s just a role in from then. But the whole point of what I do is to give them as much information as possible. So they feel empowered to the point they don’t need me anymore.

Suzanne (22:14):

Yeah. Yeah. That’s fantastic. And I suspect the advent of being able to video on your mobile phone and upload videos, you know, into portals or Google docs has made life so much simpler for working this way. You don’t actually have to be in the room to see the child or to see the child-parent interaction.

Sharon (22:40):

Absolutely., RDI have a platform, um, where the video footage and the curriculum is all kept and I have to have the family sign up to be able to work with them as part and parcel of my certification. But I do have families that sort of struggle a bit more to get the information onto that platform. And some are quite happy to WhatsApp me their videos and I just put it on for them. That’s how far technology has come. So yeah. Um, if they’re happy doing that, then that works for us working together.

Suzanne (23:14):

Yeah. I mean, tech’s great when it works as an enabler rather than a hinderer isn’t it? 

So what advice would you give to parents or grandparents who are listening and thinking, you know, that maybe they’ve spotted something in their child or grandchild? Where would you tell them to start the process? Now?

Sharon (23:36):

I would say to think about, you know, using a relationship based program. Nowadays schools and the NHS do have different programs that they have on offer where we didn’t have that. There’s almost too much to choose from.

 Apart from what’s offered by the government there is also, outside of that, more private things. So the web will give you so much information. Now it’s almost like, overwhelming as to what you can use. 

Personally, I would say if you’re going to try anything out, try that one thing out on its own. Don’t think like, I’ve gotta take a bit of this, a bit of that, because I’ve got this deadline, of which they used to say, if you don’t catch the child by the age of five, then you’re not gonna make any changes. 

Well, my daughter was 12 and a half when we started RDI and the changes have happened since we started RDI.

Sharon (24:33):

So there’s not this big hurry. The brain is still changing into early adulthood. So there’s not that urgency now. And I would suggest, you know, if you’re gonna try something, then give it a good try. 

Don’t mix it all up because otherwise you’re gonna be paying for all sorts of things and you have no idea which are actually making a difference. So that would be my main advice on that side of it. 

If something feels like it’s gonna be a fit for you and your family, then try it out. If it doesn’t work, you’ve tried that you’ve got other things that you can move on to cross it off. Yeah. 

Suzanne (25:12):

 Move on. Yeah. Great, great advice. And I’m sure the piece about when you talk about fit for you and your family, you know, that feels like that would be really important because there might be some therapies that do work quite, quite well, but aren’t right. For you as an individual or your family.

Sharon (25:33):

Yep. So that, that would be basically what I would say to do.  Is to have a look and investigate what’s right for you. With my daughter, we did do R D I, but we also went down the biomedical route and making changes to her diet made a big difference for her as well. But every child and every family is different.

Suzanne (25:54):

Yeah. Very true. Very true. Okay. So switching it up a little bit now then, and then thinking back to your younger self, what would be your piece for advice to your younger self, looking from where you are now?

Sharon (26:08):

Not so much like my way back younger self, because back then autism, as we’ve spoken about, wasn’t really something that was out there, but more from my young parent days, I think it’s really important to remember that you are still an individual that you do still have your own needs because you can get so wrapped up in your child needs help that your child needs a hundred percent of you, that you actually forget who you are. So it’s really, really important to be thinking about taking time out, having some me time. This is something that RDI actually makes a, a thing about actually it’s part and parcel of the parent goals. But it’s really important to be remembering that you have needs to, um, if you don’t give yourself that time to be you you’re gonna burn out. And if you burn out, you’re no good to anybody mm-hmm <affirmative>. So that would be my advice. 

And also as hard as it can be, if you’ve got someone that can actually look after your child, sometimes don’t forget. You’re a couple, you know, it’s, it’s important to keep that relationship going as well and not just get lost in autism.

Suzanne (27:26):

Mm-hmm <affirmative> I think, yeah. More great advice. I mean, I think it’s relevant for all parents, isn’t it, but I’m sure, and I don’t have a special needs child, but I’m sure if you have a child with special needs, it becomes even more important and even more relevant that you do look after yourself too, and, and stay in touch with who you really are.

Sharon (27:49):


Suzanne (27:50):

Well, thanks, Sharon, it’s been lovely talking with you today. Where can people find out more about you and your business?

Speaker 2 (27:57):

I have a website: Autism: Thinking in Shades of Grey and there’s some information on there. Otherwise it would be a case to sort of email me to set up a time so that we can just have a chat to see whether I would be able to help your family, whether you think I’m a fit for your family, no obligation to do one way or the other. We can have a chat from a parental or from a professional perspective. My email is Sharon@autismthinkinginShadesofgrey.co.uk.

Suzanne (28:31):

Okay. That’s great. And do you have a social media presence at all?

Sharon (28:35):

Um, I do have a Facebook page, which is Autism Thinking in shades of Grey as well.

Suzanne (28:41):

Fabulous. So we’ll make sure that all those links are also included in the show notes, so that anyone who’s listening can click over to the show notes and, and, find you there. 

So thank you very much for being my guest. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today and thank you to everybody. Who’s listened. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I look forward to receiving your comments. Okay. That’s a wrap for today. Thanks for listening. 

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