Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): Autism Therapy for Social Skills

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What is RDI Autism Therapy?

Children with autism struggle with behaving appropriately in social settings, and so Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) attempts to help them develop their social skills. The guiding principles behind RDI autism therapy are that children with autism need direct instruction in social skills, and that this will not work unless they are motivated to practice them.

RDI was developed with parents and caretakers in mind, and it gives them the tools they need to motivate their children and educate them in how to interact appropriately in various social situations. Examples of social skills taught through RDI autism therapy include reading facial expressions and body language, taking turns and sharing, maintaining eye contact, and joining a discussion.

How RDI Began

Steven Gutstein, PhD, and Rachelle K. Sheely, PhD, are the husband-and-wife team that developed RDI. They were not impressed with the existing techniques used to teach social skills to children with autism. They felt that the results of these techniques were static, with predetermined scripts that children had to follow. So, they imagined a technique that could build dynamic interpersonal skills even in children with autism. Thus, RDI was born. Although it has not been researched extensively, anecdotal evidence points to its effectiveness.

Components of RDI Autism Therapy

There are two main components of RDI that make it unique among similar techniques. The first is its ability to break down social skills in a way that children with autism can easily understand and follow. These skills build on each other throughout the program. The second component is its ability to engage learners in finding out about and practicing those social skills. With an entire section on improvisation, autistic children of all ages enjoy the fun social skills activities included in RDI, which actually serve a dual purpose. Not only do they keep kids interested in taking part in the program, they also give them the confidence they will need to interact with their peers in social situations. For example, to teach kids with autism the importance of nonverbal cues, parents can play a game in which they (and sometimes the child as well) pretend that they have lost their voices and can only communicate through gestures, facial expressions and hand movements.

Benefits of RDI

RDI autism therapy can be helpful for all children on the autistic spectrum, including those on the mild side who have Asperger’s syndrome or PDD-NOS. It helps keep children motivated to learn social skills that they might otherwise never understand, and it builds up their confidence in their ability to practice those skills effectively. RDI is an alternative to many of the scripted therapies out there, and preliminary research suggests that it is effective in creating dynamic social interactions between children with autism and the people around them.


Relationship Development Intervention with Children, Adolescents, and Adults, Vol 2, by By Steven E. Gutstein, Rachelle K. Sheely

Association for Science in Autism Treatment, Relationship Development Intervention, retrieved at, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), retrieved at, Relationship Development Intervention and Autism, retrieved at

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?