What is Knowledge? RDI Webinar

Here are my notes from another excellent RDI webinar presented by Dr. Steven Gutstein today. I take these notes to help me process the information, and hope that others will find it useful, too.

Dr. Gutstein has been focusing on some core RDI concepts and he is using common words in a specific RDI way. Today’s topic was knowledge with a capital K. While we might typically think of knowledge as things we know — like our home phone, how to drive a car, the capital of Iowa, etc — Dr. Gutstein means something much more fundamental and important to our kids with autism.

Knowledge is the brain’s way of storing significant recurring experiences in a useful way so that they can later be retrieved and compared to upcoming situations to make meaningful decisions.

The average person does not think about their thinking and decision-making much. I don’t mean thinking about the actual decision; rather, considering the process by which we evaluate information, update with new information, and compare it to old experiences to decide what to do next.

Our kids with autism do not do that process at all or very well. Because of the failure of the Guided Participation Relationship (GPR – key RDI concept), they do not develop these habits of thought. And they are habits of thought that create the underlying neurology. The brain builds itself through experiences and the GPR is fundamental to developing Dynamic Intelligence, the lack of which is the core deficit in autism.

Dr. Gutstein made this connection clear today in the webinar:

Dynamic Intelligence provides the means for our Current Self to query our Past Self on behalf of our Future Self

Knowledge is the resource for Dynamic Intelligence.

I hope I have this right. Dr. Gutstein and Dr. Sheely have given several webinars recently on this topic and I think I get it. At first, I was not sure what this had to do with my son and our RDI therapy so much. All of this ‘thinking about thinking’ reminded me of my college philosophy classes, which I loved. But, I’m a different person now with many day-to-day worries, and I didn’t really see the point.

Let me see if I can unravel the connection to me playing Row, Row, Your Boat on the floor with my 5 year old son. On the RDI Operating System, we now have Knowledge Notebooks. In fact, we have a few — for me, my son, and shared ones. I saw them online but have not used them.

The Knowledge Notebooks are a way to create an external system for my son to develop the Knowledge making process, since it does not come naturally to him. RDI overall, does something very similar with  the GPR. Our objectives are a step-by-step process to re-establish and develop the GPR. That is the whole point of what we’re doing.

So just as we have had to explicitly learn and be aware of the role of Guides and Apprentices in order to recreate this developmental pathway in our children, we must learn how Knowledge development occurs and make it accessible to our children.

Eventually, our children will be able to complete their Knowledge Notebooks themselves and use them as a life-long resource.

So now I see why I need to understand the Knowledge process. Onward to the actual content from today:

What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is all about organizing experiences. Knowledge will have appraisal, analysis, and identification components. Knowledge is an integrated product that we develop.

Gathering Knowledge includes identification and classification. First, we look at recurrence. Recurrence tells you that it is important and that it is worth constructing Knowledge about. Then we consider whether it is like this prior experience but not like this other one.

We don’t need higher level functioning Knowledge for simple things. We need Knowledge to help with difficult things. The experience also must be a challenge or have uncertainty.  If it was easy, why create Knowledge about it?

In creating Knowledge we decide what is significant, what do I trust, etc. These are appraisals that we do at a subjective level. If we cannot do these appraisals, we get overwhelmed.

There are many processes going through our minds that we are not aware of, as we make decisions and take actions on important items.

Knowledge vs Information

Knowledge is not mere information. Let’s compare the two:


  • Baseball player’s batting averages
  • Rules of baseball

Experience-Based Knowledge

  • What practice method has worked best to improve my hitting?
  • Why have I been striking out so often lately?

Knowledge is not Remembering

It’s purposely constructed to point us forward, not backwards

Knowledge is is not just memories; it is using memories of important, recurring situations with added perspective and focus that can be compared and contrasted to future situations.

Knowledge is Personalized not Generic

Everyone borrows information from others. In RDI that is a skill we teach our kids with autism. To become Knowledge, it must be imbued with meaning for ourselves.

When I ask for someone’s advice, I evaluate it against what I’ve tried before and the specific details in my current circumstances to see how it fits, see if it makes sense to me, see if it’s something I can do, etc. I think about how reliable this person’s perspective is, and whether their advice has been good in the past.

Knowledge is not Skill

Proficiency is the state of being skilled and reflects our ability to integrate decision-making and effective performance in specific real-world situations. Knowledge is not useful without requisite Proficiency. However, Proficiency does not develop without Knowledge to guide it.

We learn to develop Knowledge.
We practice to increase Proficiency.

To backtrack a bit, RDI has two components. First is the Family Consultation Program (FCP). That is what our family is doing now, and what I usually mean when I say RDI. After graduating from the FCP, then there is a new curriculum called Dynamic Intelligence (DI). I don’t know much about it yet. This is just some background to explain this quote from today by Dr. Gutstein:

In FCP, we are not interested in Proficiency, we are working on Knowledge. Once we move to the next level, Dynamic Intelligence, then we being to work more on Proficiency.

Knowledge Products Do Not Provide Certainty.

We aren’t preparing for a world of certainty. In fact, RDI helps our kids deal with life’s uncertainties.

Knowledge products are designed to improve our ability to predict and influence important, challenging, and only partially predictable future situations.

We start with different situations and identify common recurring experiences and then determine future personal significance. We might reference important persons in deciding significance. We use this to predict or influence something.

Knowledge can inform us of opportunities and problems we are most likely to encounter. It can inform us about potential conditions that might indicate whether a particular strategy is a “Best Fit”

Knowledge is probabilistic thinking which is very difficult for people with autism. It involves lots of what-if and gray-area thinking.

Dr. Gutstein gave an example of trying to avoid heavy traffic on an upcoming trip. We might consider these questions:

  • Will I encounter a traffic jam on my trip?
  • Where and when might it occur?
  • How can I find out if I’m heading into traffic so I can avoid it?
  • What are my options if I do get stuck in traffic?
  • When I get close to the highway, what should I look for to help me decide what to do?

Dynamic vs Static Decision Making

Next, he gave an example of two situations. First is noticing a light bulb has burned out.  A burnt-out light bulb is not dynamic – it will not change. The bulb will still be burned out when you get back from the store with the new light bulb. I don’t need to keep updating with new information.

Compare this with an an approaching hurricane. A hurricane forecast will show potential paths for a hurricane. But it is not definite; it changes as it nears landfall. You need to decide how significant this will be for you:

  • How close you are to its predicted path?
  • What preparations might you need to make?
  • How best to stay informed on the path as it gets closer to landfall?
  • Think about your personal history with hurricanes.
  • Should I prepare or leave the area?
  • Use the generic knowledge from the forecast to make your decision as to what to do.

Good Knowledge Practices

(I had to take a phone call during this part of the webinar so I have just a short paraphrase and might have missed some important points.)

Expect to have only limited ability to predict and influence future situations, but work to make the most of it. We prepare for important, challenging, and uncertain situations by constructing most likely future scenarios and experimenting with multiple strategies. It’s important to prepare in a ‘simulated’ environment where there are no consequences for getting it wrong. Treat plans as rough drafts, requiring ongoing adjustments. Supplement knowledge with situation information to provide an updated picture of the Decisional Field.

Comments, Please

Thanks for reading this long post! I hope this has been helpful in understanding the important concept of Knowledge for developing Dynamic Intelligence in our kids with autism. I still struggle a bit with connecting this to our current early efforts to develop the GPR.  But I feel so strongly that we’re on the right path for our son that I’m willing to put in the effort to master this information. I’d be happy to discuss it further in the comments.



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