ABA / VB vs. RDI

Taken from “What is RDI and how does it compare to Applied Behavior Analysis and Verbal Behavior?” By Robert Schramm, MA, BCBA

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is currently the most popular and proven educational approach to supporting the development of children with Autism and its related disorders. The successes of the modern approaches to applied behavioral autism interventions are becoming consistently better in the process of teaching children toward the concept of autism recovery. Verbal Behavior (VB) being one of the most behaviorally advanced and effective approaches has moved ABA beyond the rote, repetitive, table learning of its past and developed it into a natural, relationship building, holistic learning program. Along with the ever growing success rate of modern ABA, there is an ever growing body of scientific evidence supporting its use. For these reasons ABA has become the most commonly accepted path for families of children with autism to follow throughout much of the world.

Relational Development Intervention (RDI™) was developed and is taught by Steven E. Gutstein, Ph.D. (www.rdiconnect.com). Dr. Gutstein’s conceptual work can be found in the book “Solving the Relationship Puzzle,” Jessica Kingsley Publishers. RDI™ is a social relationship development program designed to enable parents to teach “dynamic intelligence skills” to their children. Its stated goals include helping children with autism become more flexible thinkers and to adapt more easily to ever-changing environments. The goal of this program is to help a child gain the important missing pieces that allow him to truly understand the shared benefit of being with others. The program is designed to give children with autism the tools needed to make real and lasting friendships.

Dr. Gutstein designed his approach specifically to teach to the areas of social experience sharing in which most children with autism were deficient. Dr. Gutstein studied the needs of children who had learned many skills through the teaching procedures of traditional ABA. He concluded that the procedures used to teach these children skills did not foster social experience sharing and in many instances obstructed the development of social goals. Therefore, from a desire to find a better way, he began to develop and then trademarked his recommended compilation of teaching procedures and curriculum called RDI.™

I agree with the assessment of early ABA methods espoused by RDI™ proponents. The procedures used prior to the Verbal Behavior movement in ABA were in many ways limiting to a child’s ability and desire to participate in relationship development. However, I also feel that the RDI™ program is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. RDI™ used outside of the context of a good ABA/VB program is an attempt to ignore reinforcement, extinction, motivation, and other proven principles of behavior. Thus, parents using any program that does not teach to these important principles often flounder when things do not go as they are told to expect. In my experience, traditional ABA and RDI™ are polar opposites that have a perfect middle ground. That middle ground is ABA/VB.

A good VB program keeps the principles of behavior in the forefront while looking at teaching as more of a fluid process predicated on the desires of the child. However, some of the teaching recommendations of RDI™ deserve a closer look. RDI™ is in many cases an approach and set of goals that can strengthen the social interaction and relationship developments skills of a child in an ABA/VB program.

Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that RDI™ and ABA/VB are more alike than their respective practitioners would have you believe. RDI™ recommends that about 75% of your interactions be based on the use of non-verbal and declarative language. Declarative language uses words that share thoughts, ideas, and feelings. It does not ask for a response from your child. RDI™ attempts to use this declarative language to teach children a desire to share of themselves through positive modeling and fun. The RDI™ complaint about older ABA and even some ABA/VB is that ABA in general relies too heavily on imperative language. Imperative language requires a response. Most instructions in ABA are imperative. To some degree, I think Dr. Gutstein may be right. When you are taught always to speak to your child in instructions, you often lose the ability to share in the joy of your child. When your child is taught to communicate through required response, he also may not learn to share in the joy of you. In the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA, it is recommended that pairing yourself with reinforcement should be 75% of all of your interactions with your child. The problem with pairing as a concept in ABA/VB is that it is not well defined. Pairing is a process of playing with your child. Thus, making his daily experience more enjoyable when he is with you than when he is without you. Good pairing does not include the use of instructions. It is merely fun play activities guided by the child’s lead with the goal of creating the parent/teacher as a generalized reinforcer for behavior choices.

If RDI™ recommends approximately 75% of your interactions to be declarative language and ABA/VB recommends that approximately 75% of your interaction to be without instruction (imperative language), then both recommendations are identical. However, rather than pointing to a “core deficit” of autism, ABA/VB recognizes that every child with autism is affected in a different way. Consequently, individual children have differing sets of developmental delays in four learning areas. These areas are behavior, general learning skills, communication, and social interaction. In fact, the 1999 Surgeons General report on mental health that recommends ABA interventions for autism identifies these exact deficit areas. Teaching to each of these deficits takes a special consideration. If you are to teach toward recovery, you must teach to all of these deficits in any proportion they present themselves in the case of your specific child.

It should be noted that even the best ABA/VB programs only offer a very general description of how to teach your child to desire participation in learning through pairing. Most attempts at teaching social skills in traditional ABA were developed around instructions, responses, artificial reinforcement, and involved social scripting. However, I feel that the makeup of relationship development comes not from what a child is told or asked to do but from what he chooses to do in order to maintain an interaction with a particular person. It is during the 75% of time spent pairing with a child, that you are purposely not eliciting, prompting, or reinforcing responses. It is only during this pairing time that the child is allowed to make the necessary choices to explore the joy of others and spontaneously share feelings of his own. Similar to the beliefs of RDI,™ I feel that the way to teach social experience sharing and a desire for social relationships is in large part through the 75% of teaching time that we are simply pairing with a child.

Although the scientific research demonstrating the effectiveness of RDI™ procedures is either nonexistent or currently not independently replicated, my opinion is that it is quite possibly a step in the right direction toward finding the missing parts of this final piece to the autism intervention puzzle. What I feel is still missing in even good ABA/VB is the understanding of how to use our pairing time to target the many subtle individual steps involved in building a child’s desire to participate in interactions that are purely social in function. This would include the child’s desire to socially reinforce others. The RDI™ program uses nonverbal games, social referencing, and declarative statements in large quantities, among other program recommendations to teach to the fourth category of learning deficit that comes with autism. This category is social interaction or more specifically the experience sharing part of social interaction.

Using the principles of ABA in concert with the procedures of VB best prepares you to address all four deficit categories of behavior, general learning skills, communication, and social interaction. However, by more effectively using the time you are not presenting instructions (imperative language) through the procedures of RDI,™ you may be able more systematically to address social experience sharing deficits that for some children pairing alone will not overcome. The main difference between ABA/VB and RDI™ is that ABA/VB procedures and principles are experimentally demonstrated effective in detailing exactly what to do with your child during the 25% of time you are using imperative language. While RDI™ is filled with promising but mostly unproven recommendations of how you should use your 75% pairing time to teach to social experience sharing goals.

Rich or poor, all parents have a limit to the amount of time, energy, and money available to them to educate their child toward recovery. So how do you use this yin and yang of ABA/VB and RDI™ to decide where to best allocate your limited resources? This depends on what you have already experienced and to what areas of deficit most significantly affect your child. If you are currently using traditional ABA methods that do not include the research of the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA, it is a good choice to upgrade your current program. If you already use the best methods of ABA/VB to help teach your child, you should consider looking into RDI™ so that you have a more definitive set of relationship development goals to more effectively teach to during your pairing time. In many cases the basic books of RDI™ “Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children,” and “Relationship Development Intervention with Children, Adolescents and Adults” along with “The RDI™ Program Progress Tracking System,” and the most recent version of the RDI™ video is sufficient to achieve this goal.

Conversely, if you have already begun teaching yourself how to use RDI,™ consider studying ABA/VB. Go to a few of the major workshops and consider employing a BCBA. Try to become competent at using the seven steps to instructional control detailed in the book “Motivation and Reinforcement; Turning the Tables on Autism” (http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Schramm). This book will give you a detailed understanding of the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA and offers a complete and systematic path to developing the important Master/Apprentice relationship you must have for RDI™ success. By embracing ABA/VB you will learn the principles and procedures that will allow you to take full advantage of the 25% percent imperative language you are allowed to use in RDI™ without infringing on your RDI™ program. This will allow you to best teach to your child’s deficits in behavior, communication, and general learning skills.

If you are currently not familiar with either approach and your child is at all delayed in his behavior, communication, or general learning skill, you are best advised to focus your time and energy on the evidence based teaching techniques of ABA/VB, due to the outstanding record of success and ever growing body of evidence supporting its use. However, if you have the resources and you feel your child’s relationship skills are not begin address effectively in your ABA program consider RDI™ as a supplementary social relationship development approach. But with either approach, make sure that the people you are trusting to guide you have references, are certified, and up to date with the latest information and teaching procedures available.

Robert Schramm is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), with a Master’s degree in Special Education. He is the lead behavior analyst for Knospe-ABA, Europe’s largest ABA/VB autism intervention institute. Knospe-ABA uses the principles and procedures of behavior analysis espoused by the biggest names in ABA/VB to guide the education of over 250 children worldwide. He is also the author of the very popular autism teaching manual, “Motivation and Reinforcement: Turning the Tables on Autism“.

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