The Research Behind Relationship Development Intervention: Does RDI Really Work?

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What is RDI?

Many children with autism struggle with social skills such as reading facial expressions, understanding social constructs, taking turns, and maintaining eye contact. Relationship Development Intervention focuses on these skills and others and attempts to help children develop these skills through direct instruction and interactive practice. One of the main hurdles that parents must overcome when implementing RDI is finding ways to motivate children, to make them want to learn about these social skills and master them. RDI attempts to give parents tools that they can use to both provide that motivation and to instruct children in these skills in the most effective ways.

Who Can Benefit From RDI?

The intent of RDI is that it should be used by parents, but teachers or therapists could use the program as well. RDI is designed for the entire autistic spectrum, including people with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS, and nonverbal learning disorder (NLD). It can also be helpful for people who have relationship problems unrelated to ASD, such as people with Tourette syndrome, ADHD, or other learning disabilities. RDI activities are most helpful for two year olds and up - through the teen and adult years as well.

How Does RDI Work?

RDI breaks down social interactions into various skills that the child must accomplish in order to be socially successful. For example, the child must be able to maintain eye contact, follow the give and take of conversation, understand nonverbal cues, and identify sarcasm or joking tones, among other skills. RDI uses engaging activities, such as having children mimic the facial expressions in a series of pictures, in order to teach social skills to children on the autistic spectrum.

Background and Research on RDI

This treatment intervention was developed by a husband and wife team of clinical psychologists. Its creators, Steven Gutstein, Ph.D. and Rachelle K. Sheely, Ph.D., felt that the existing methods of teaching autistic children were not successful enough in encouraging the development of dynamic interpersonal skills. Instead, they gave people with autism static skills, such as given phrases to use as answers to specific questions. Gutstein and Sheely felt that people with autism could reach higher than that, given the proper motivation and tools.

Little research has been completed on Relationship Development Intervention, although there is anecdotal evidence that it can be extremely effective. At present, only one uncontrolled study was done in 2007 by Gutstein, Burgess, and Montfort. Although this study was published, it was not peer reviewed. More research is necessary to determine the efficacy of this intervention treatment program.


This post is part of the series: Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

This series of articles discusses various aspects of Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), a social skills program for children with autism.

  1. Insight into RDI Autism Therapy
  2. Can Relationship Development Intervention Help Your Autistic Child?