Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

What is Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)?

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Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is a family-based, behavioral treatment which addresses the core symptoms of autism. It focuses on building social and emotional skills. Parents are trained as the primary therapist in most RDI programs.

RDI helps people with autism form personal relationships by strengthening the building blocks of social connections. This includes the ability to form an emotional bond and share experiences with others.

Dynamic Intelligence

RDI builds on the idea that “dynamic intelligence” is key to improving quality of life for individuals with autism.

Dynamic intelligence means the ability to think flexibly:

  • Understand different perspectives
  • Cope with change
  • Integrate information from multiple sources (e.g. sights and sounds)

There are six objectives of RDI:

  1. Emotional Referencing: the ability to learn from the emotional and subjective experiences of others
  2. Social Coordination: the ability to observe and control behavior to successfully participate in social relationships
  3. Declarative Language: the ability to use language and non-verbal communication to express curiosity, invite others to interact, share perceptions and feelings and coordinate your actions with others
  4. Flexible Thinking: the ability to adapt and alter plans as circumstances change
  5. Relational Information Processing: the ability to put things into context and solve problems that lack clear cut solutions and have no “right and wrong” solutions
  6. Foresight and Hindsight: the ability to think about past experiences and anticipate future possibilities based on past experiences

RDI involves a step-by-step approach to build motivation and teach skills. The teaching plan is based on the child’s current age and ability level.  The parent or therapist uses a set of step-by-step, developmentally appropriate goals

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. The goal of this process is to improve “neural connectivity,” or brain function.

Parents, teachers and other caretakers continue to use 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.

Who provides RDI?

Parents and caregivers of people with autism usually serve as the primary therapist in an RDI program. Parents can learn the techniques of RDI through training seminars, books and other materials. They may choose to work with an RDI-certified consultant, as well.

Classroom teachers and behavioral therapists may also use RDI. Some specialized schools offer RDI in a private school setting.

How does RDI work?

The RDI consultant may begin by doing an assessment to learn how the child interacts with parents or teachers. The consultant will then create a teaching plan and goals based on the person’s development and abilities. The plan will include working on communication styles that best suit the child.

At the start, RDI involves one-on-one work between the parent and child. The parent or therapist applies stepwise, developmentally appropriate objectives to everyday life situations.

For instance, at first parents may limit how much they use spoken language. This encourages the child and parent to focus on eye contact and non-verbal communication.

As the child’s abilities increase, the goals and teaching plan change to meet his/her needs.

Next, the child begins spending time with a peer who shares similar social and emotional skills. This may be referred to as forming a “dyad” (meaning two children).

Gradually, additional children join the group. They meet and play in a variety of settings with the guidance of a parent or therapist. This allows them to practice forming and maintaining relationships in different contexts.

What is the intensity of most RDI programs?

Families often use the principles of RDI in their day-to-day lives. Each family will make choices based on their child. Most families spend at least a few hours per week using RDI strategies. 

What is the evidence that RDI is effective?

To date, no independent studies have been published on RDI. In 2007, the technique’s developer (Dr. Steven Gutstein) published a report in the journal Autism that found positive results of RDI in a study group of 16 children. Independent research is needed to confirm benefits.

How do I find an RDI-certified provider?

Visit the RDI Connect website to view a list of certified RDI consultants in the U.S., Canada and many other countries.

Use the Autism Speaks Directory to find additional providers in your area. 

For more information

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

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).