Interview with Dr. Rachelle Sheely on RDI Program for Families dealing with Autism

RDI's newest publication, 2009
RDI's newest publication, 2009

Dr. Rachelle Sheely is passionate about examining the complete and often complicated life of children with autism. Along with her husband, Dr. Steven Gutstein, she is director, author and well-respected family interventionist for Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), an internationally recognized treatment program for autism spectrum disorders. Using RDI principles,Dr. Sheely and her husband founded the Gilbert Hall School newly opened in California this past October. They have also authored books and guides widely used by professionals in the field of autism. The latest book by Dr. Gutstein, The RDI Book: Forging New Pathways for Autism, Ausbergers & PDD. It is described as "the most comprehensive and updated guide for parents and professionals who are interested in constructing and retracing small, gradually more complex developmental steps, to provide opportunities for people with ASD to attain a quality of life as competent, independent and emotionally connected adults."

Drs. Sheely and Gutstein became interested in autism over 15 years ago. They focused on the communicative relationships of children with autism. This orientation is grounded in the belief that relationships are the “vehicles of dynamic intelligence”. While other interventionists were focusing on language and academic deficits, they wanted to sort out what made autism relationships different from those deemed normal.(continued)

They began to look at success in normal parent/family interaction and it’s impact on the development of the child from birth. By documenting the developmental markers within normal relationships, Drs. Gutstein and Sheely began to understand how the developmental progression with autistic children becomes skewed. While pondering the differences, they built a systematic model of intervention based on their findings. The result is a most impressive set of programs offered by RDI to parents, families and professionals.

One of RDI’s brochures aptly sums up their approach. “Dynamic Intelligence is what allows us to successfully solve complicated problems, prioritize multiple demands, carry on meaningful relationships and achieve long term goals”. Dr. Sheely and Dr. Gutstein have worked “to shift the perception of how we can and should operate in the Autism world as guides and facilitators” The couple was motivated “to show that it is possible, by constructing and retracing small, gradually more complex developmental steps, to provide opportunities for people and ASD to attain a quality of life as competent, independent and emotionally connected adults.”

Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children
Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children

RDI offers certification programs for professionals, some of whom are also parents. The model is used worldwide in settings that include Africa, Australia and Singapore. Their delivery model is based on studies of parent-child relationships and it employs 16 stages that provide the foundation on which programs are customized for each family. The training includes an online component that increases the quantity and quality of interaction that professionals and parents have with RDI consultants. The professional training keeps a distinct focus on parent empowerment to build relationships around the child’s unique needs, intentions and personality. Dr. Sheely relates that one of their objectives is to “train ourselves out of a job” by increasing family empowerment and control. Dr. Sheely recalled a phrase she has heard more than once from parents, “I still remember the day I got my child back.” That’s a strong indicator that, as parents take charge by finding a way into their child’s world, the connection is made.

The parent program is comprehensive with multiple objectives that go beyond a singular focus on the child. This includes attention to all members of a family, including siblings of children with autism who may have experienced a shift when a family has to focus intently on one child’s problems. Ninety Five percent of the family’s fathers participate fully. It is interesting to consider that Dr. Sheely has found that for RDI families dealing with autism, the divorce rate is lower than the national average. The program uses video to help parents and professionals internalize and transfer the objectives and strategies. Another unique part of the online component is that participants can upload videos to the system allowing consultants to analyze the interactions and make suggestions. This helps to create a searchable online video library that participants can access to see specific issues were dealt with in other cases with real people. These tools and connections among parents and professionals make for an impressive online community devoted to finding better ways to build and grow relationships with the children.

When asked what speech language pathologists might do to improve their work with autistic families, Dr. Sheely commented that in some masters’ programs she has seen valuable shifts taking place by placing more emphasis on communication vs. language alone. She sees this as a positive transition and feels that professionals in autism have collaborated with SLPs to produce this transition. She mentioned that it was in fact SLPs that, in part, had long ago influenced her thinking about more interactive approaches. RDI training is available for SLPs, see resources below.

Dr. Sheely received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, 2 children and her beloved puppies.

By C. Gray, 2009

Relationship Development: Children, Adolescents & Adults
Relationship Development: Children, Adolescents & Adults

* The RDI Book: Forging New Pathways for Autism, Asperger's and PDD with the Relationship Development Intervention Program, February, 2009 Find Book pre-sale and synopsis at:
* Activity Books, very helpful to frame objectives)
* My Baby Can Dance, an edited book of the insights of 11 consultants on their experiences with autism.
* Educators book compilation of work by public schools and home schooling consultants,
* The RDI Book, March 15, 2009, Available on the RDI website,
Journal articles:
* Evaluation of a Relation Intervention Program. Autism, Vol 11 #5 Sept/Oct 2007 Lead article, Sage pub.
* RDI Connect
* Gilbert Hall School