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Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): A Treatment for Autism

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Updated April 28, 2008


The Goals of RDI

Dr. Steven Gutstein is the creator of the RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) program. The program is parent-centered, and, according to the literature, is intended to help lay missing pathways in the brain. The claims made for RDI are extraordinary; according to the literature, by following the system parents can expect their children to develop:

  • Dramatic improvement in meaningful communication,
  • Desire and skills to share their experiences with others,
  • Genuine curiosity and enthusiasm for other people,
  • Ability to adapt easily and “go with the flow,”
  • Amazing increase in the initiation of joint attention,
  • Powerful improvement in perspective taking and theory of mind,
  • Dramatically increased desire to seek out and interact with peers.

Who Is Dr. Steven Gutstein?

Gutstein is a psychologist with experience in traditional(behavioral) approaches to autism treatment. He felt that, though patients increased in skills, they still lacked basic abilities to connect on an emotional level. In fact, according to the RDI promotional booklet, he felt that not one of his patients, not even the highest-functioning developed the ability to share a tender moment or a joke.

Going back to the literature, Gutstein reviewed over thirty years of research on autism. Analyzing all this material, he came up with what he felt were autism's core deficits. Based on this set of deficits, he developed a family-based therapeutic approach complete with trained consultants, training seminars for parents, support networks, publications, products and more.

Autism's Core Deficits According to RDI

Gutstein says that the literature clearly shows that autistic individuals have six shared deficits. These six areas, he says, "Are universal to every person on tthe autism spectrum. Moreover, they have not been shown to improve with age, even following intensive intervention programs." They are:

  • Emotional Referencing: The ability to use an emotional feedback system to learn from the subjective experiences of others.
  • Social Coordination: The ability to observe and continually regulate one’s behavior in order to participate in spontaneous relationships involving collaboration and exchange of emotions.
  • Declarative Language: Using language and non-verbal communication to express curiosity, invite others to interact, share perceptions and feelings and coordinate your actions with others.
  • Flexible thinking: The ability to rapidly adapt, change strategies and alter plans based upon changing circumstances.
  • Relational Information Processing: The ability to obtain meaning based upon the larger context. Solving problems that have no right-and-wrong solutions.
  • Foresight and Hindsight: The ability to reflect on past experiences and anticipate potential future scenarios in a productive manner.

How RDI Addresses the Core Deficits

According to Gutstein, all of autism's core deficits have one thing in common. Instead of relying on "static intelligence" (that is, the ability to know information or memorize facts) they rely upon "dynamic intelligence" (the ability to flexibly and creatively respond to novel situations). Thus, the purpose of RDI is to build or remediate dynamic intelligence.

"Instead of making up my own therapy," says Gutstein, "I said, let's look at the natural process and slow it down, make it more explicit. Let's see what happens if we take the same process and break it down, and then teach parents to do what' they're already capable of intuitively and see them explicitly. We teach the parents to be more aware of the process, give them developmental objectives, and give these kids and parents a second chance. We don't change the natural process, but rather customize it to individual needs. Your goals are to remediate common deficits using individualized means."

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