Relationship Development Intervention

Child playing with mom implementing relationship development intervention

Learn about Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), an autism treatment intended to improve social, emotional, cognitive, and functioning abilities.

One of the leading challenges for children with autism symptoms is that they have trouble relating to other people. Their social skills are limited, frequently rehearsed, potentially robotic and/or awkward.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) attempts to help establish real social skills and is based on the work of psychologist Steven Gutstein, Ph.D. Many therapies focus more on what is referred to as “static intelligence” (ability to know information and memorize facts), but RDI distinguishes itself from other typical treatments by focusing more on “dynamic intelligence” (ability to adapt and flexibly/creatively respond to novel stimuli). 

There are four basic principles that guided the development of the RDI program:

1. Providing a second opportunity to develop the guided participation relationship
2. Investing in families first
3. Careful developmental construction of dynamic intelligence
4. Biopsychosocial management of comorbid conditions

Sometimes I wonder if the main focus of treatment was entirely based on helping a child connect with the outside world, whether learning basic skills would just come naturally as they do for other children. RDI appears to show that this theory may be possible.

Video of Relationship Development Intervention

With the primary deficit involving specific forms of complex information processing, children may be able to learn isolated social skills (e.g. shaking someone’s hand or rules like talking quietly in the library), but obscure social skills are more challenging.

This deficit in turn causes a mass of developmental problems in areas such as emotional awareness, social collaboration, real-world problem solving, experience-sharing communication, episodic memory, self-awareness, and self-regulation.

Relationship Development Intervention is usually taught to parents and professionals through seminars and with the support of a certified RDI consultant to assist them in developing a guided participation relationship.

The goal of the guided participation relationship is to improve abilities through the many productive activities of everyday life, so that the child literally comes to “borrow” his or her guides’ mental processes. By doing this the child learns that he or she can manage multiple interpretations of the world through his or her own as well as others’ eyes and ears.

While I’m not saying that applied behavior analysis (ABA) isn’t a valuable part of treatment, I do believe that incorporating therapies that concentrate on connecting with others is extremely valuable as well.

If you put together a treatment package that combined the positives of RDI with DIR Floortime, ABA, and autism biomedical treatments, I believe a child would truly succeed beyond our wildest imaginations. Unfortunately, these autism treatments are often segregated from one another rather than utilized cohesively to form a dynamic program for children with the best of all worlds.

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1. Gutstein, S. E. (2009). Empowering families through Relationship Development Intervention: an important part of the biopsychosocial management of autism spectrum disorders. Ann Clin Psychiatry, 21(3), 174-182.

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