The Importance of Self-Communication

The title art for the RDIconnect podcast "Autism: A New Perspective." The subtitle reads "The podcast show to understand what's going on in the mind of your child and encourage you that growth IS possible! Hosted by RDI Certified Consultant Kat Lee."
Autism: A New Perspective
The Importance of Self-Communication

In this episode of ASD, A New Perspective, Dr. Steven Gutstein, the founder of the RDI® Model for remediating autism, talks about self communication and the use of gestures with our ASD children.

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Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD, A New Perspective. The podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. This week, as I visited with Dr. Gutstein, he talked about self communication and the use of gestures with our children, a fascinating discussion.

Dr. Gutstein: So, what we see is that when we develop gesture, we develop facial changes, prosody, in a communicative sense. It has a very strong impact on your own re-experiencing but also it makes you a person who is … other people want to be with, and other people want to communicate with. Whereas if you practice intentionally communicating, like gesturing in some kind of scripted way or some kind of intentional, it really clouds up your system. It makes you very stiff, artificial, overwhelmed. There’s too much you have to think about. And so, to me, in autism, they don’t make that distinction. They keep teaching communicating, you know what I’m saying?

When you talk to somebody, you’re not intentionally … it’s not … I’m using gestures, you’re not intentionally … I mean, I may be intentionally doing it right now but most of the time you’re not doing it … unless you’re a used car salesman or a politician or a psychic. You’re not aware. It doesn’t develop out of your desire to communicate to them.

It doesn’t develop out of this system where you’re pointing or pushing away. It develops out of the sense of trying to make sense to yourself and you notice, when you’re struggling with a thought, you’ll often gesture more.

Kat Lee:: I do that a lot.

Dr. Gutstein: And we assume it’s because we’re communicating. But it’s not. So when you’re communicative, what’s interesting is, if you watch somebody who’s very communicative, even though they’re not intentionally doing it, it’s somebody everybody wants to be with. Why? Because we get the sense of being with them they’re willing to share who they are with you. They’re revealing themselves to you. They’re open with you. They’re honest with you. They’re there. They’re sharing experience with you.

Which is a very different, when you feel like somebody’s communicating. What are they trying to do? What’s their agenda? You know?

And so, in RDI, what’s interesting is we want to emphasize the importance of developing our children, our people, as communicative. That sense of gesture, face, as part of your own personal experience, not as something you think about to influence another person. Yes, you can learn to do that later, but unfortunately in autism, everything’s social skills, right?

Kat Lee: Exactly

Dr. Gutstein: You see? I think that’s an interesting topic. Don’t you think? The difference between communicative and communicating.

Kat Lee: Oh, it’s huge.

Dr. Gutstein: Yeah, you see the distinction?

Kat Lee: Absolutely, yes.

Dr. Gutstein: You find that our kids who do the best, who are the most involved in the interpersonal world, who are most endearing are the ones who haven’t necessarily practiced communicating; they’ve become communicative. Right?

And what’s interesting … so, watch them make their own videos for themselves and you really get to see without that performance to others, without having to worry about monitoring what they’re thinking, what they’re saying. Without having to worry about all that first. That’s later. You can see the synchrony, you can see the gesture, you can see the facial, and you can see the prosody all occurring, even though I’m not communicating to another person. So you see a narrative that’s being done by someone who we’ve worked with in that way?

It’s a different mode. It’s a different style. It’s a different way of thinking about that, using your body, right? It’s being aware of your own body and not being aware … initially, it is. But it’s being able to be embodied, right? Which then also triggers parts of the brain that have to do with emotion, that have to do with significant. When you’re sort of like this and like this in a robotic way, like this, your brain … it’s basically communicating, even with your words, that there’s nothing significant happening.

That’s now how you communicate to yourself. How you message yourself, that there’s something significant to remember or retain or something to feel. We do that with our bodies. We do that through inter reception, becoming aware of our bodies, whether it’s the tension, whether that’s the movement, whether that’s our body, whether that’s our posture. Whatever.

And it’s the way we signal ourselves. It’s the way we communicate with ourselves, right? Again, without consciousness, without being aware of it.

One of the things we’re considering is practicing, having to practice not … It’s great to practice having … Let me put it another way. You know how early on, we had people practice/model non-verbal conversations? Parents don’t understand that a lot of times. But it’s really critical. That’s one track. Let me say it a different way: there’s two tracks. There’s a communicating track, which I think is important.

Kat Lee: Yes.

Dr. Gutstein: There’s a communicative track, which we often overlook.

Kat Lee: Yes.

Dr. Gutstein: While it’s important to be able to practice so that having fun with those and making those a part of what communicating is about, I think not only when we do that and we do it playfully, we’re also influencing our communicative ability, right?

Kat Lee: Yeah, for sure.

Dr. Gutstein: Rather intentionally and we so playfully use our voices and becoming aware of them. But even more so you can practice it when you’re making your own video, when you’re making representation just for you and realize that it’s just a part of you basically … you can say communicating with yourself, but just of experiencing your world and then, if you think about it then, then you become a person who is communicative throughout the whole day, learning to be someone who is … whether you’re with someone or not, right?

You’re experiencing throughout the whole day, your body is showing that you’re having experiences, and it’s distinguishing different experiences and the body is giving you feedback about your own experiences. How else can you know? You can’t stop think about it, but your body starts to provide you with that feedback.

Kat Lee:: Yes.

Dr. Gutstein: Your own gesture and your own face and you become more aware. You become more embodied in that way and we know that people with autism don’t do that. They don’t become embodied in that way.

Think about it, how you would then stop and recognize that something’s important to you. How do you do it? Well, your body recognizes it first. It’s not that you stop and think. You can’t. I mean, something has to trigger, right? You just up and say, “I want to remember that,” well it’s your body doing it first. Your awareness of your body.

And you know, it could be like that or it could be your heart rate or it could be your breathing or it could be your face or it could be something. And then you amplify it with your body first before you even do it with your words, so you might have your gesture like that or before you even are thinking about it, right?

And that also triggers the salience network in the brain, which, it’s interesting, the network in our brain that’s most involved in determining what is significant, what should stand out, whether it’s our thinking, something in our mind, whether it’s something in the world, it’s called the salience network, salience meaning significance.

And the salience network is also the center for interpreting interoceptive or body communication. Isn’t that interesting? It is the main area for that. It also is the main area for sort of processing emotion in terms of meaning, in terms of significance. Not like the amygdala, which is like, ah! Non-meaningful. But when you think of that feeling, feeling is not that. That’s just reaction.

Feeling is when you’re making sense, when you’re appraising something, when it has some significance. So feeling and body awareness are very integrated, right? And significance.

The other thing the salience network does that is interesting is it’s the switching area between focusing on a task in the world and focusing more on your experience or experience in yourself. It’s sort of like this switching junction for that, too.

The idea that you might see something significant and then stop for a second and think about it and feel it and wonder about it. Right? That’s occurring on the salience … the wondering itself occurs on the default network, but the switching from doing something in the world to stopping and pondering it or smelling the roses if you will or thinking that something is pretty, that switch is occurring on the salience network.

And that’s very wrapped up in the way our body is providing information to us in the world, through our … When I say our body, to our voice. It’s what we call the analog information, right? It’s not digital. It’s our voice, through our eyes, our face. Really, not eyes. Our face. Our posture. Our tension we might feel in our body when we’re relaxing. And very much in our gesture, too.

Gesture is very powerful, we’ve thought. Right? Gesture is an abbreviation of what young children do with their whole bodies. As we get older, we start to more with just our gesture.

Kat Lee: That’s so interesting. I was thinking about how … I may be meeting with somebody on the phone if we can’t meet online and how I’ll tell them, I’ll laugh. I’ll say, “I hear gesturing wildly!”

You really connected to why I’m doing that. You know? Even though they’re not there, I’m still-

Dr. Gutstein: And that’s why the video becomes so important too. You can’t see gesture. In fact, you can probably infer facial expressions through voice tone and such … but, although you get more confusion, but you can’t do anything with gesture. And gesture’s funny because gesture, as I say, it’s not necessarily communicating, but it’s very communicative.

Right? It’s very powerful in a way that’s communicating. And if becomes a part of your embodiment, a part of how you go through the day and you’re gesturing for you, right? Then it has a powerful interpersonal impact. Right? I can’t even imagine how you would learn to do it as part of what you’re thinking in a conversation. It’s just too much. It’s overwhelming.

So you learn to gesture, you learn to use your body throughout the day. It’s just part of how you experience the world, how you give yourself feedback, how you make sense of your world. And it comes across in communication. It’s communicative. Right?

Same thing with your face. Right? Same thing with your face. So the idea of doing it conversation is interesting. But to me, I think that’s a starting point and that you want to move from there to learn to do it for yourself. Much more.

Kat Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Gutstein: And we might do it together first just because it’s new, right? But the application isn’t to necessarily do it in conversation. That’s what’s so interesting, is to learn to do it with yourself, which then will occur … it comes automatic when you’re doing it all the time, of course it’ll occur in conversation, too. And you won’t have to think about it.

And the other person won’t feel manipulated by you. It’ll just be there. It’ll be an openness. Like you see when you’re gesturing, too, on your face, and you’re with another person, it’s like you’re opening a door to your internal world to them. Because with our language we learn to be deceptive. We learn to-

Kat Lee: Sure.

Dr. Gutstein: Right? We learn to hide our intentions. Now, certain people are able to do with that their body, CIA agents and such, but for most of us, it’s more the window to our soul. So when you’re with somebody who is that, doing that, you feel more of a shared sense of being with them. They’re more endearing. They’re more engaging. You want to be with them.

Not because they-

Kat Lee: Versus if somebody’s like this-

Dr. Gutstein: Or nothing at all, yeah. Same thing with voice and the same thing with face. But again, think about all those as feedback systems for yourself. And that’s something new for me. Rather than intentional ways we practice communicating to others. I think it’s impossible to do it in a natural way if you do it that way.

People in autism are doing it all wrong. All wrong.

Kat Lee: Absolutely.

Dr. Gutstein: That’s a very highly-sophisticated, you know, thing that you need if you’re in certain … like espionage and things. It doesn’t make you an endearing person. It doesn’t … it makes it worse. It makes you more detached. You view the feedback and think about that, you do it, you’re with the other person, you’re getting the feedback of feeling connected with them, because they’re doing it. You’re doing it. Right?

It’s not so much you’re doing the same thing but by sharing in that way, you’re also feeling. You’re feeling. It’s amplifying your own feelings. And because I’m having feelings, then you have the feelings towards them. Feeling something. You’re not just worried, “What should I say? What should I do? What’s the right thing?” You’re feeling it and you’re feeling it.

That was my lesson today, was being communicative. Communicative, versus communicating.

Kat Lee: Well, and it makes me think about that parallel process and how much parent guides may not be … ever communicating that way.

Dr. Gutstein: That’s right. That’s right.

Kat Lee: You know? Because when I do this with you, it’s like you said, right? It’s-

Dr. Gutstein: You become aware of it, right?

Kat Lee: Right, but I have to say, I’m thinking that parent guides aren’t … and you know, are not doing that with their children.

Dr. Gutstein: Well, they’re not mindful of it. And again, there’s actually emphasis on language and directiveness. This is not … I mean, yes, you can use gesture to directive, but not talking of that gesture. We’re talking about the gesture of our communicativeness is not directive and it’s a way that we feel, we experience. It’s about developing the experience system, not a performance system, right?

Kat Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Gutstein: No, they’re not aware of their own, and I think we want parents to be mindful of that. We want our consultants to be mindful of it. We want our children to learn to make that … their bodies, to give themselves that embodied feedback as they go through the day and then if they’re not getting that, then how do they know what’s meaningful? How do they know what’s significant?

How do they know what to remember? How do they know what they’re feeling?

Kat Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Gutstein: This helps you feel. If you’re feeling tense, you know? Or if you’re stimming, if you’re stimming, that’s not giving you any feedback. That’s just cutting out feedback, in fact. Those those types of things keep you from having any feedback about what’s going on in the world. They shut it out when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

But this is amplifying it, this is making it easier for your … you’re thinking about your salience network to make sense of what’s going on moment to moment in your life when you’re embodied, when you’re using your body in this way.

That was, I thought, very interesting. And we focus on gesture because as I said, as we get older, rather than communicating so much, if you think about conversations with people, it becomes an abbreviation of all the movement that young children do and all the full-body stuff they do. It becomes a representation or an embodiment, an abbreviation of all that other stuff in what we do with our hands.

We still do it with other parts of our body, but even though we start maybe controlling that a little bit more, we still can use gesture. It’s interesting to see some people who are just not using it at all, who are just sort of stuck. And that’s gesture, too.

Think about that. That’s gesture. That’s hiding. But it’s also hiding from yourself. And see, that’s the key. It’s not just hiding from others-

Kat Lee: Interesting. Yes.

Dr. Gutstein: You know? And that’s what some psychologists would have said, “You’re defensive.” But it’s not just … it’s that you’re not giving yourself information.

Kat Lee: Huh.

Dr. Gutstein: Right?

Kat Lee: Wow.

Dr. Gutstein: Think about that. You’re defensive, you’ve cut off your own feedback system.

Kat Lee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Of course.

Dr. Gutstein: Whereas if you’re gesturing, right, or you’re active with your body, it’s for you. It’s for you, because you’re doing it. And that’s why it’s so interesting to do it, if you’re doing it when no one’s around.

Some people do. Some people more do that. It’s sorta like talking to yourself when no one’s around.

Kat Lee: Exactly.

Dr. Gutstein: Or singing when no one’s around or whatever. But there’s something very special we find about moving your body when no one’s around that is different and seems to be more powerful for the human brain. Isn’t that interesting?

Kat Lee: It is fascinating and it reminds me of what I’ve always said of how you provide the missing pieces and this is another missing piece, when your unconscious sees a person not doing these things, the effect it has without you not really knowing what it is sometimes.

You don’t necessarily realize what it is.

Dr. Gutstein: If you think about it, there are several issues inviting it. I mean, certainly, initially, we work on synchrony, and there’s moving together and that’s very important. We move together, right? And that’s different. That is establishing a physiologic sense of synchrony, attunement, we call … whatever you want to call it, but it’s a very universal, intrinsic motivation to move together and building on that is very important as we’re establishing the foundations for growing a relationship, right?

And then of course, there’s when we do co-regulation with movement, which is a little bit later, and we’re learning to do sort of the basics of improvisation, where we can add variations within frameworks through our actions and our movements, through that. That’s not necessarily communicative but it really is providing us with … and we talk about keeping that away from tasks, right?

Because it builds that creative, imaginative and also more natural social types of co-regulatory encounters that we have where we co-vary around a framework together and that’s why we get together.

So there’s that type of movement, and then you get to movement like we talk about gesture, and children start to point. And that’s very important, too. And that they use … they do that before they’re speaking and we know how important it is that they learn to use their bodies to lead us to co-experience something with them.

And that keeps developing, that communicating gesture. Keep away, you silly person. No, no, no. Whatever.

Kat Lee: Absolutely.

Dr. Gutstein: And then there’s this other track of gesturing for oneself, you using your body for oneself, that doesn’t get talked about much at all. Right?

Never in autism. Never. Which has to do with providing yourself an ongoing sense of feedback. Interestingly enough, why do we think that to 60% to 70% of people with autism have alexithymia? Alexithymia being unable to be aware of your own feelings. Isn’t that interesting?

Why is that? Think about it. If you’re not giving yourself that information, that ongoing feedback through your body, what you’re experiencing, right? You’re not gonna be aware of your own feelings.

The goal here is not to become self-conscious about your body. That’s not at all what we’re talking about. It’s learning to free your body, right, to give you feedback on an ongoing basis. And there’s an improvisational quality to it. I realize, too, whether you’re talking about gesturing for yourself.

Because when you’re gesturing for yourself, it’s not random. It’s not stimming. It’s not random like that. It’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Everybody’s a little bit different. We’re not all the same, but there is sort of a framework. There is a structure. Like a little bit of a repertoire of different representations, so if I am communicating with you, even though I’m talking to you, I’m not trying to do this intentionally, and I’ll say, “We can do this. We can do this,” or adapt this. That was hard. Or I think I can.

Or I don’t know if I can … whatever. We’re a bit different. We don’t have to use the same vocabulary, same symbols, but there is a framework that we can learn. And then improvise around it, right? For yourself. So we can teach that. We can say, “Here are some ways that you can use your gesture in the day,” you know? I’m thinking about something … let’s see, what is that? What is that? Right?

Kat Lee: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely!

Dr. Gutstein: Or, whatever. Right?

Kat Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Gutstein: Ah, I got it. You know? And do it as a piece of information for you. And supporting that development in the child rather than everything being outward towards the other person. Now again, that’s a transition we make in the program, because initially, we are developing their relationship. But once we have that started and that’s the key is knowing that, okay, we’ve got that firm intrinsic motivation, growth-seeking tied into the guide, right?

Then the guide’s job becomes then developing the self. Developing the person. Developing that child’s experience of the world. Right? And that’s when you can start to see that. When I call it ‘mind guides,’ we become mind guides, right? That’s when you start to see that … we should start to see that change.

Rather than communication training, we’re better calling it … it’s self-communicative training, right?

Kat Lee: I love that.

Dr. Gutstein: It’s a transition, right? I mean, I think that’s the key. And it’s not that you neglect communication, but what’s amazing is when you do that, how much it improves your communication. Right?

Kat Lee: I think-

Dr. Gutstein: And that’s what we see in the kids, when we have more communication training but maybe we haven’t intentionally done that, but we have. They have become self-communicative in that way? They’re the ones who are the most attractive to others, the most desired by others. Even though they haven’t practiced all this communication training. We haven’t given them any. But they are the most. Interesting.

They’re genuine and authentic and sharing who they are with you.

Kat Lee: Which is what it’s all about.

Kat Lee: And thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


  1. gayathri rajagoapl

    yes, i agree with what Dr.G is saying- that ASD kids are not communicative, though they are taught how to communicate.
    but i dont see how RDI can be used to build or grow that .
    Dr.G does a good job of helping us understand the deficit itself and the theory of why it is important , and that is importtant to know. but I get very less of what we (as Rdi parents ) can do to build that communicative network , in this podcast.

  2. Rachelle Sheely

    Good Morning
    Thank you for your comment. I’m just a little confused by your question and would love to know more about it. Would you feel like emailing me?

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