For some families at-home therapy, led by parents as primary therapists, became a necessity during lockdown. Relationship Development Intervention is a home-based, potentially effective treatment that may help parents promote dynamic intelligence, social skills and flexibility in their autistic children.
Banana bread, zooming (that’s a verb now) in pajama bottoms, and doing everything from home is the microscopically thin silver lining to this cumulonimbus pandemic cloud hanging over us. For some parents, with kids on the spectrum, doing everything from home includes taking a leading role in their child’s therapy and treatment sessions.
Parent-led therapy or intervention is nothing new, but it did gain traction during lockdowns when many parents were forced to take charge of their kids’ therapy and education. Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is a treatment or intervention that fits well into our new normal, our do-it-from-home mandate.
RDI is not a medical therapy, rather it is described as a parent-led intervention targeted at addressing core autism symptoms. Parents are trained to take the role of primary therapists in this behavioral treatment that was developed by Dr. Steven Gutstein.
What is Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)?
This developmental treatment aims to teach autistic children flexibility and, more importantly, social and emotional skills. These skills are important building blocks of social connections, and stronger social connections are often associated with happiness in children.
Based on scientific studies and theories concerning the lack of social motivation in autism, many people believe that those on the spectrum are not really interested in social connectedness. This is in sharp contrast to the opinions of many autistic individuals who speak about craving social connections, and how they may just approach the process of connecting differently to neurotypical people.
A study (Jaswal & Akhtar, 2018 ) titled Being versus appearing socially uninterested: Challenging assumptions about social motivation in autism appeals for a better understanding of the unconventional ways in which autistic individuals express social interest. This study and the testimony of many autistic individuals means parents may need to dig deeper to understand their child’s social motivation.
A desire for social connection is unfortunately often belied by autism’s core symptoms that may interfere with typical social engagement and the accompanying rituals, like eye contact and back and forth conversation. A treatment like RDI may provide parents with the tools to help their child acquire and address social skills to improve their interaction and relationships with others.
Beyond the acquisition of social skills, the behavioral treatment may benefit more natural and complete interaction between family members. The family-based component of the treatment is key, the goal of developing and maintaining better family relationships is then extended to peer relationships which may lead to the child being more content at school.
Parents receive training, not to turn them into the equivalent of professional therapists, but rather to embrace the critical role they play in their child’s life, and to use RDI skills to improve their relationship with their child. The same principles that foster better family relationships are then utilised to form and improve two-way, flexible relationships with other people.
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RDI and dynamic intelligence
Dr. Gutstein refers to RDI as a cognitive developmental parent training program (Gutstein, 2001). The RDI program promotes the development of dynamic intelligence, which according to Dr. Gutstein (2009) is a mental process that allows problem-solving, flexible thinking and adapting to changing and uncertain circumstances.
Dynamic thinking, according to Dr. Gutstein, develops in typically developing children through guided participation with parents or caregivers. In his opinion, autistic children have a rigid worldview and difficulties with information processing, which may hamper development of dynamic intelligence.
Dr. Gutstein concluded that the parent child relationship may need to be re-built with treatment or like RDI, to structure a “guided participation” relationship between the child and parent. Throughout the intervention process, positive reinforcement is used to motivate flexibility and social skills.
Objectives of RDI
For parents and caregivers who want to learn more about the goals and objectives of this treatment, RDIconnect is the official website; there are many resources and also the contact details of RDI consultants. In brief, the six objectives of RDI are:
- Emotional referencing: learning from emotional feedback, or the ability to learn from subjective experiences of others, for example family members
- Social coordination: includes controlling behavior to successfully participate in relationships
- Declarative language: a skill that involves using language (and other ways of expression like non-verbal communication) to show curiosity, share feelings, and invite other people to interact
- Flexible thinking: the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
- Rational information processing: the skill of putting things in context or deriving meaning from a particular context
- Foresight and hindsight: involves skill of considering past experiences, especially as it may influence future possibilities
Often parents first want to research or read about a new treatment for their autistic child, to determine whether the intervention would be a good fit for their family. To this end, Dr. Gutstein’s book about RDI (The RDI Book) may be a great starting place.
Research and RDI
Unfortunately, studies about the effectiveness of RDI are lacking. One study (Gutstein et al., 2001) found positive results with regards to flexibility; but the study lacked a control or comparison group in addition to some other limitations.
Therefore, before considering RDI as a treatment or intervention option for autistic children, parents should be aware that evidence proving effectiveness is lacking—unlike other evidence-based therapies and treatments, like applied behavioral analysis (ABA).
Anecdotal evidence from parents suggests that RDI may benefit autistic children, and improve the way they engage with others. Parents feel the intervention is cost effective and convenient as it is mostly home-based. But most importantly, parents endorse this therapy because of its potential to create a stronger parent-child bond.
Gutstein, S. E. (2001). Autism Aspergers: Solving the relationship puzzle-A new developmental program that opens the door to lifelong social and emotional growth. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Gutstein, S. E., Burgess, A. F., & Montfort, K. (2007). Evaluation of the relationship development intervention program. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 11(5), 397–411. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361307079603
Gutstein, S. E. (2009). The RDI book: Forging new pathways for autism, Asperger’s and PDD with the relationship development intervention ® program. Houston, TX: Connections Center.
Jaswal, V. K., & Akhtar, N. (2018). Being vs. Appearing Socially Uninterested: Challenging Assumptions about Social Motivation in Autism. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 1–84. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X18001826.