A look at the benefits of Relationship Development Intervention for bolstering the natural guiding relationship between parent and child.
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is a whole-family approach based on the natural guiding relationship between a parent and child. RDI is a collaboration where the parent becomes the main therapy provider, and other therapists such as SLP, OT, and PTs are invited to collaborate. The RDI consultant meets regularly with parents who do daily activities with their child to focus on the skills discussed in each meeting. After some practice, they send a short video to the consultant who reviews it and helps parents develop the next steps.
RDI can save families time and money because it can be done remotely. Some parents even choose to meet during their lunch hour.
I know what many of you are thinking: “I don’t have the time! I’m not qualified…”
I promise: you do have time, and you are qualified. You know your child best, and because RDI is based on the naturally-occurring, guiding process between a parent and a child, you intuitively know what to do. An RDI consultant helps you tweak your approach so your child will pick up on it. We first work on creating a support network for parents so they can be in the best position to learn the tools and support their child.
A consultant can help parents understand and connect with their child. Then we start to develop tools that work for the specific child to help him/her explore, learn, and grow through self discovery. Daily engagements with a child are required, but I don’t want you to see it as adding a job to your day—a more apt view would be to consider it as adding value to the things you are already doing.
In the end, the goal is to give parents enough tools so that they don’t need a consultant anymore. Eventually, parents will transfer enough of those tools to their child, who will be confident in his/her ability to solve problems and ask for help when needed.
The theory behind RDI
As I mentioned before, RDI is based on the natural guiding relationship between parent and child which has developed for thousands of years across every culture. Research has shown that between the ages of one and two, neurotypical children develop two driving forces. The first is to be safe, and the second is a growth-seeking (or curiosity) drive that most children on the autism spectrum don’t have. The lack of this growth-seeking drive makes it harder for them to deal with uncertainty and deprives autistic children of many learning opportunities.
Not due to any fault of the parent or the child, a breakdown in communication happens. A child on the spectrum doesn’t give the parent the same signals and doesn’t respond to parents in the same way as a neurotypical child, which may lead to parents becoming more and more intrusive with their communications attempts. This creates a sensory overload and the child shuts down.
Take the example of a child focused on an Easter egg. He is focused on the egg because it is static and feels safe, whereas the other five children running and giggling in the park are unpredictable and scary. Mom calls the child’s name but all the child hears is a distant, mumbling voice reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the classic cartoon.
Mom repeats herself with more intensity, and the child focuses harder on the egg to drown out the sensory stimulation coming in. Eventually the mom is using more physical attempts to get her child’s attention. The child is already experiencing sensory overload which drives a bigger gap in the relationship between them.
Consultants teach parents to meet their child where they are at, and how to reopen those lines of communication to build trust with their child. Because when children feel safe, they are willing to explore, learn, and grow.
We help parents build a relationship with their child where the child always feels safe and trusts that the guide will never put him/her in a situation he or she can’t handle. We do this by creating learning opportunities (engagements) where the level of challenge is one the child can handle. Then, slowly, with the tiniest of increments, we increase the level of challenge. When we see a child struggling too much, we step in with some hints to overcome the challenge—without giving the answer.
Competition builds confidence. When a child feels like he/she solved a problem, overcame a challenge, or discovered something new on his/her own, it builds confidence to face the next challenge. It also helps him/her develop skills in problem solving, creative thinking, and reasoning.
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What makes RDI Different from other therapies?
- RDI builds confidence, self esteem, agency, and a growth mindset. Early on, parents develop a family culture of experimentation and exploration so that children become used to trying several different approaches to solve a problem
- RDI builds intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation: most of the time, the child either wants to do an activity for him/herself because he or she knows how that skill applies to life, or he/she wants to do it for their “guide ” parent
- One of RDI’s main goals is to develop a child’s sense of agency. We don’t engage in activities like taking something out of a child’s hands or physically prompting him/her without permission, unlike many other therapies. An RDI consultant teaches parents to wait with their hand out for a child to give them what is in his/her hand, ensuring the child knows it is his/her choice
- Consultants teach parents to shape learning experiences to best fit their child, by preparing the environment, asking questions, and highlighting important information and thought processes in many different ways
- Consultants also teach parents to help their child to recall past experiences and apply past learning to current experiences to solve problems or understand situations
- RDI teaches dynamic thinking skills rather than static ones. Static intelligence is something that doesn’t change: black and white thinking. Two plus two will always be four, a red light always means stop, and the alphabet will always be in the same order. Autistic children often excel in this area of thinking. Dynamic intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to roll with the punches. It is used to adapt and change when new information enters the equation, to find a solution that’s just good enough, to wade through gray areas, to take several moving pieces into consideration, and to use past similar experiences to make a decision. A good example of using dynamic intelligence is a conversation: you have to listen to what the other person says, interpret his/her meaning, and decide how best to respond. We use dynamic intelligence every day: in picking which movie to watch, understanding a joke, or choosing which route to take as we drive home
Seen, heard, and valued
Relationship Development Intervention leaves children feeling seen, heard, and valued. They grow confident and know they are loved. Parents grow calm and confident in their ability to support their child. Their houses become places of harmony and connection. Parents create a life where they don’t constantly feel overwhelmed.
This article was featured in Issue 127 – Nonverbal Communication
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