A Brief Introduction to Relationship Development Intervention

 Editor’s Note:  DIR/Floortime and RDI have some principles in common.  Both are based in developmental psychology, and both build strong relationships between children and caregivers to help children move along developmental pathways.  The emphasis is different, but we appreciate the wisdom both approaches contribute to our parenting!

The RDI®program is a result of fifteen years of ongoing development and research by Dr. Steven Gutstein, and his partner Dr. Rachelle Sheely. The program has evolved into a comprehensive, family based intervention program for children and adults with ASD and related developmental disabilities. Currently, there are over 200 trained and certified consultants located all over the world. These consultants work directly with families in a carefully staged program that challenges parents to become experts in understanding and guiding their own children.

Based on growing evidence in the field of ASD research, we are now learning that people with ASD are united by specific, lifelong neurologically based information processing difficulties  – severe learning disabilities-  that strongly impact quality of life.

Dr. Gutstein describes these difficulties in terms of poorly developed dynamic intelligence: the ability to make optimal decisions in dynamically changing, complex environments. The ability to think flexibly, to learn from your own experience and those of others, requires highly developed neural integration. Most of us are able to use this ability to communicate and collaborate with other people, to solve problems flexibly, and to carefully weigh all of the factors involved in every day decision making.

Because of poor neural integration, children with ASD tend to think in much more rigid terms. They may excel at acquiring generic information about certain topics, but have difficulty applying information in real life situations.

For example, a child with ASD might have acquired a great deal of knowledge about the weather: he or she may be able to tell you if it is sunny or cold, may be able to name different types of clouds, and may even astonish you with memorized weather statistics.

The same child, however, may be so overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in the weather conditions, that he may resist going outside. Like others with ASD, he has difficulty learning from his own successful and sometimes unsuccessful experiences adapting to rain, or wind, or the hot sun. He also has difficulty “reading” another person’s point of view to interpret new situations (“Look, they are getting their snowpants on, I want to do that too.”) or to regulate his own emotions ( “Everyone else seems excited to try it, this could be a lot of fun!”).

In typical children, dynamic intelligence begins to develop in the first year of life, through countless hours of interaction with parents. By the time the child is two years old, he is already a motivated apprentice to his adult guides, watching their actions with intent, and taking learning risks while constantly checking in for the adult’s feedback. He is able to appraise his guide’s intentions, desires, preferences, and this appraisal plays a pivotal role in all of his decision making.

The focus of the Family Consultation Program in RDI is to restore this guiding relationship; to give families a “second chance” to become effective guides for their child with ASD. In the process, parents become experts in understanding how their children learn, and in how to impact their learning. Children become better decision makers, problem solvers, and become more emotionally resilient. Once this has been accomplished, the family may be ready to participate in the Dynamic Intelligence Program, which introduces specific learning challenges into what has now become a comfortable guiding relationship.

Like many relationship based therapies, the intervention is carried out by parents and pivotal caregivers. In RDI, adult guides plan engagements in the context of authentic activities, meaningful to the family and the child. Under the guidance of their consultant, parents must be ready to become active, self-reflective learners; parents are expected to be active partners in their own and their child’s learning, and to video record and analyze their work. By the end of their participation in the Family Consultation Program, parents will  become able to manage their own program, accessing the consultant when they have questions, or when they are ready to plan new learning challenges for their child.

For more information regarding the RDI® Program, the following resources are recommended:

  • Steve Gutstein, The RDI BookRDI Connect: This is the main webpage for the RDI program, where you can find more in-depth knowledge about the programs offered. You will also find a listing of RDI consultants in your area. www.rdiconnect.com
  • The RDI Book: Forging New Pathways for Autism, Asperger’s and PDD with the Relationship Development® Program  Steven E. Gutstein, Ph.D. This book is available for purchase online, or may be loaned through the SCCY Rehabilitation Centre for Children.

Lianne Belton O.T. RDI® Program Certified Consultant

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