Relationship Development Intervention

Relationship Development Intervention® (RDI) is a family-based, behavioral treatment designed to address autism’s core symptoms. Developed by psychologist Steven Gutstein, Ph.D., it builds on the theory that “dynamic intelligence” is key to improving quality of life for individuals with autism. Dr. Gutstein defines dynamic intelligence as the ability to think flexibly. This includes appreciating different perspectives, coping with change and integrating information from multiple sources (e.g. sights and sounds).

RDI aims to help individuals with autism form personal relationships by gradually strengthening the building blocks of social connections. This includes the ability to form an emotional bond and share experiences.

RDI’s six objectives are: 

  • Emotional referencing: The ability to learn from the emotional and subjective experiences of others 
  • Social coordination: The ability to observe and control behavior to successfully participate in social relationships 

  • Declarative language: The ability to use language and non-verbal communication to express curiosity, invite interactions, share perceptions and feelings and coordinate with others 
  • Flexible thinking: The ability to adapt and alter plans as circumstances change 
  • Relational information processing: The ability to put things into context and solve problems that lack clear cut solutions 
  • Foresight and hindsight: The ability to anticipate future possibilities based on past experiences 

Though designed for in-home use, RDI is also used by classroom teachers and behavioral therapists. Training typically begins with the parent or other caregiver attending educational sessions led by an RDI consultant. Certified RDI consultants operate in the U.S., Canada and many other countries. Alternately, caregivers can learn the principles of RDI through a variety of books. (See section on Dr. Gutstein’s books, below.)

The consultant may also assess the child and his or her interactions with parents or teachers. Based on this information, the consultant designs a personalized teaching plan. It includes developing communications styles that best suit the child.

The initial goal is to build a "guided participation" relationship between parents and child, with the child as a "cognitive apprentice." Once this relationship is in place, the family advances through a series of developmental goals for their child. According to Dr. Gutstein, this process improves “neural connectivity,” or brain function.

Parents, teachers and other caretakers continue to apply the principles of RDI in the child’s daily life. They use positive reinforcement to help the child improve social skills, adaptability and self-awareness.

In its initial stages, RDI involves one-on-one work between caregiver and child. In the next stage of the intervention, the child begins spending time with a peer at a similar level of relationship development. Gradually, additional children join the group. With guidance, they meet and play in a variety of settings. This allows them to practice forming and maintaining relationships in different contexts.

What is a typical RDI therapy session like? 

Parents or other caregivers apply a set of stepwise, developmentally appropriate objectives to everyday life situations. For instance, in the early stages of training, they may limit spoken language to encourage eye contact and non-verbal communication. They gradually advance these goals as the child’s abilities increase.

What is the history of RDI? 

Dr. Gutstein developed his model of dynamic intelligence beginning in the 1990s. He studied how children typically become competent in a world of social relationships. He delved into the research literature on how early parent-child interactions can foster the development of language, thinking and emotional development.

He concluded that brain “underconnectivity” in people with autism leads to a rigid and unchanging worldview. Further, he concluded that difficulties with processing information prevented those with autism from developing the “dynamic intelligence,” or flexible thinking, needed for relationships, independence and quality of life.

Typical children develop dynamic intelligence through guided participation with their caregivers, he concluded. Due to their social difficulties, this relationship breaks down in individuals with autism. He designed RDI to help parents re-build their relationship with their child in a gradual, systematic way.

In 2001, Dr. Gutstein published his first book on RDI, Autism Aspergers: Solving the Relationship Puzzle. Since then, he has written several more books on RDI, including The RDI Book (2009).

What research has been conducted on the effectiveness of RDI?

To date, no independent studies have been published on RDI. In 2007, Dr. Gutstein published a report in the journal Autism. It found positive results in a small group of 16 children.

Where can I find more information on RDI? 

RDIconnect is RDI’s official website and provides resources for finding consultants and connecting with other families who use RDI.

For more information and resources related to behavioral interventions for autism, please see Autism Speaks pages on Treatment Overview, Video Glossary and FAQs. Autism Speaks has a number of resource-packed tool kits for free download here. They include our 100 Day Kit for families who have a child recently diagnosed with autism. These resources are made possible through the generous support of our families, volunteers and other donors.