Autism, RDI® and the Importance of the RDI® Consultant

Autism: A New Perspective
Autism: A New Perspective
Autism, RDI® and the Importance of the RDI® Consultant

Why does RDI® use Consultants?

When we got interested in autism, the incident was 1 in 10,000 people, and what we were seeing was parents giving their children over to “professionals”, assuming that anybody would be better with their children than they were. Dr. Gutstein and I never believed that so the consultant model was born.

The consultant model is based on independence; you start with your own children by guiding them and then at some point they become independent of you. 

What we had seen over the years is that parents would come back and ask us, “We’re pretty independent now, but this came up, what are your suggestions?” So we become consultants rather than people who are getting kids to do things and getting parents to do things.

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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand the mind of your child, and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this week’s podcast, Dr. Sheely talks to us about RDI and our consultants who help families. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: So Dr. Sheely, I talk to new families, new parents so often, several times a week, in one way or another, either literally talk to them or back and forth via email, etcetera. And one thing they really wanna know is how are our consultants different? What do we do that’s different? And of course, it’s always hard to tell somebody I’m different than somebody else, ’cause I don’t know the somebody else. So what I can do is say what we do. And I think one of the things about the model that you and Dr. Gutstein team have come up with that is amazing to me, is that we are a family model. We are a consultant, really, to the parents. That’s who we’re focused on. I wonder why you and Dr. Gutstein came up with a family model like this, what was the motivation for you all?

Dr. Sheely: I think it’s a simple description of why we came up with it. When we got interested in autism, the incident was, as I’ve said before, 1 in 10,000, and what we were seeing was parents giving their children over to people assuming that anybody would be better with their children than they were, and we just disbelieved that from the beginning. So the consultant model we came up with was based on independence. And by that I mean you start with your own children by guiding them, and then, well, maybe teaching and guiding, and then at some point, they become independent of you. And they come back at times and say, “Remember when I was wondering how you thought about it,” so they use you more as a consultant than they did when they were younger, and so that became the model for RDI. We knew we needed to replicate as much as we could what happens in families that aren’t dealing with autism, and so we wanted to get that guiding relationship in place. We wanted to get parents to a point where they could help their children reach their own potential. And then in the same way that their children would come back and talk to them about being a consultant. Our parents do the same thing. They come back and they ask us, “We’re pretty independent now, but this came up, what are your suggestions?” So we become consultants rather than people who are getting kids to do things and getting parents to do things.

Kat Lee: The family model is one of the things that attracted me to RDI, and I know exactly what you mean when you say parents thought that anyone would be a better guide than they would. So for those who might be watching us visit who wonder about that, I would see parents hire people with little to no experience to work with their children. That is how incompetent the parents felt, that someone who had no experience with children, no children of their own, but who would just agree to come in and work, that would be better than me. And I think that says a lot about how parents feel, don’t you?

Dr. Sheely: I think it does. I think it also speaks to how autism can make everyone feel incompetent. It can make the person who is beginning to deal with autism feel incompetent. Incompetent in terms of our relationships and the world at large, and how to navigate that. I think it does the same thing with the parents. And also, interestingly, with the professionals at that point who were are getting involved. So once they were given a road map that was static, do this, sit here, point here, it became very doable because then they no longer felt incompetent. Like, “I know what to do. I will give him whatever to get him to say a word,” and that was why they could actually hire people who were not well-educated in the field of human behavior, maybe a college freshman even or sometimes even a high school student, to come in and do this with their child, because it was a very rigid way of interacting with the child and getting the child to do things. If you think about it, Katherine, we’re always saying we don’t want to make or get the kids to do things, and that’s what was going on.

Kat Lee: Gosh, when you were talking about the parents and how they would feel incompetent, I started thinking too, and this makes my heart break for parents, I think they feel rejected. We know they’re not being rejected, but because that guiding relationship is not in place, how much does the feeling of rejection play in the part of parents who are afraid to interact with their children?

Dr. Sheely: You know, I’ve thought about that a lot, and I’m not sure. I know that some parents actually verbalize that. They’ll say, “I felt so rejected. No matter what I did, I felt rejected. I felt like my child didn’t love me the way I loved him or her.” And then other parents don’t seem to feel that way, they figure out something they can do with the child and they just keep doing that over and over again, because they don’t want the tantrums, they don’t want that feeling of my child is not a good apprentice to me. I think it’s probably different in different degrees for different parents, but I know many parents have mentioned to me that their initial feeling was my child… It doesn’t feel like my child loves me the way I love my child.

Kat Lee: Wow, and that brings me back around to our model with our consultants, that when parents come to us, we’re stepping with the right into that, right into the feeling of rejection or incompetence or whatever it may be. How do you train new consultants to think about this because this is really a different model, this is really a different interaction? And having known, as a parent myself, many different consultants who are focusing mostly on the children and goals, whatever they may be for the children, this is different. This is focusing on parents and the heart of their life, their children.

Dr. Sheely: When parents realize that their role is not to get their child to do something, but to help their child become a better apprentice to them, and that they will be able to guide that child, a light bulb goes off because while they’ve maybe been thinking, maybe feeling rejected, now they see their role in a different way. I’m going to help my child become a better apprentice to me, so that what we do together pulls my child ahead and helps him reach his potential, and that’s what we train our consultants to do. Our consultants come from all kinds of backgrounds, we have consultants who are in the helping professions. I mean, they’re social workers, they’re occupational therapists. And then we have parents who love RDI and they wanna help other parents, so they might have been pharmacists, or shoe salesmen, or car manufactures, accountants, all kinds of things. We have an interesting mix of people, but with that mix, everybody brings something to the table, and particularly for parents who become consultants, they bring a sensitivity to the table that people who have not lived with autism everyday just don’t have.

Kat Lee: On that sensitivity, because you’re going to be in their home, even if you’re not physically in their home, you’re in their home, because they’re gonna be sharing with you, as I say, their kitchen table experience, their playroom experience with you. They’re gonna be showing you videos of their home, and so that relationship is so important. And that is one of the things I’ve really valued about you and Dr. Gutstein, as you train your consultants, of course, in the things they need to know to help the families, but also with a sensitivity that you’re coming into someone’s home. And my mother taught me, there’s a certain way you respectfully are with people when you’re in their home.

Dr. Sheely: What did she teach you? I’m interested in that.

Kat Lee: Well, she talked about how you respect whatever their values are, you show them respect for the things that are important to them. And even if you are not accustomed to it or used to it, you talk to them about it with interest and not in a skeptical way. And I really do think one of the things that our consultants do, because they are, figuratively anyway, in the home, is show their respect. It’s so important.

Dr. Sheely: I think it’s so important for parents to know that they have been heard. And to start a conversation with parents where you’re trying to get them to do something or you’re explaining something doesn’t help them feel heard. People need to tell their stories, people want to tell their stories, and if we really want to get in there with parents and move, all of us move forward together, we need to hear them. And we need to hear them not in terms of what date somebody did something, but we need to hear them with compassion, we need to hear them with an open mind, and we need to hear them understanding that no matter what we think, they know their child better than we do, and we have to start there.

Kat Lee: The thing I love that kind of puts that all together is we take time. And I don’t know how many times I’ve had a new family tell me, I work with this or that, but they take 10 minutes every two weeks and tell me, oh, this is happening this is happening. But it’s back to what you said, to hear someone, to feel heard takes taking that time, Dr. Sheely.

Dr. Sheely: Yeah, it does. And I’ve appreciated your work, Katherine. I followed it closely over years now. And I know that when I talk to a family that’s worked with you they always talk about how you kept them focused, but how you did it with compassion and how you thought so carefully about their child, how carefully you responded to the information they sent you during the week. So I just would like to say thank you to you today. So thank you.

Kat Lee: Well, thank you. And I thank you and Dr. Gutstein because you’re bringing this to parents, you’ve been bringing this to parents for years and what the work for families is in RDI is so relevant now as it was 20 years ago. It’s just key to moving our families, moving our children and moving our parents forwards with their families. And so, I thank you.

Kat Lee: Thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective, a podcast show where we help you understand the mind of your child, and we always encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, see you next time.


  1. Kimberlee Berner CCC-SLP

    That is so well put, Dr. Sheehy and Kat! Parents feeling empowered, competent and excited to initiate and continue that dynamic guided Relationship is key. … and feels like Love to both the Child Apprentice and Mom/ Dad Guide! Thank you

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