Why there’s a bright future using ‘Guiding’ for children with autism

Tania: Today we start a new series of articles from Zoe Thompson, who has been a regular contributor to our SNJ LinkedIn group

Zoe is the Head of Development at Bright Futures school where, alongside the academic curriculum, they run a curriculum that helps to foster social and emotional development in children with autism. They work on a range of competencies including social referencing, joint attention, co-regulation and self-regulation.

I was really interested in Zoe's blog where she's writing about working with a new pupil, Lucy. Zoe is going to give us a series of updates about her work and today is her first article.


Why there's a  bright future  'Guiding' children with autismI am delighted to have been asked to write about our work with Lucy and am raring to go….but first I think a little background might be helpful.

What’s different about Bright Futures School?

Bright Futures School for children with autism is quite unique in the UK in that we place as much emphasis on social and emotional development in our students as we do on academic development.

In order to do this, we use the principles and practice of the autism intervention Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), which takes a developmental approach to working on the core difficulties at the heart of autism.  We call our approach ‘guiding’ and it’s developmental in nature because it recognises what lots and lots of research is now showing – that autism is a result of children failing to master key developmental milestones in the early years.  This is not a result of poor parenting (as has been claimed in the past) but has instead come about because autism has prevented the child from taking part in the early years social interaction that enables mastery of these developmental milestones.

In guiding, our aim is to give CYP another chance to master these missed milestones.  To do this, we need to do several things.

  1. Use ‘declarative’ communication

Firstly, we have to completely change our communication style from an instructional style (which is what most teaching establishments use – issuing commands and making demands) to an invitational or ‘declarative’ style – making descriptive comments and waiting for the child/young person (CYP) to respond if they want to.  We give them plenty of time to respond and do not put any pressure on for a response.

  1. Slow down the pace of interaction and promote competence

Secondly, we need to slow our pace of interaction and communication down and place a big emphasis on facilitating experiences of competence for our CYP.  To do this, we work in pairs where the child/young person is the ‘mental apprentice/student’ to the adult’s ‘guide.’ Guide and student work together towards a common goal, with each having a co-regulatory role (see below).  We use everyday activities such as baking, gardening, playing board games, art and craft activities, woodwork, household (school) chores as the vehicle for our guided social interaction.

  1. Ensure we have co-regulatory roles

Thirdly, we need to ensure that each of the communication partners has a clear role and that the guide’s primary aim is to enable the apprentice to step successfully into their role in order to synchronise their role actions so that there is what’s called ‘co-regulation.’

An example of co-regulation is rolling a ball back and forth to each other.  To start with, the adult guide is in the role of ‘sender’ and the student is in the role of ‘receiver’.  These roles are then reversed when the student rolls the ball back to the guide.  Each person’s role action (sending or receiving) is contingent on, but not controlled by, the other person’s role action.  We can each decide how to roll the ball (fast or slow, straight or bouncing off a wall etc.) and there won’t be a successful rolling pattern if one of us steps out of our role.  If the ball accidentally goes off track, a ‘co-regulatory repair’ is needed – one of us must retrieve the ball and continue our pattern.

If you think about it, that’s like a metaphor for social interaction……both partners must be mindful of each other’s needs.  The ‘sender’ in the interaction must read the receiver’s response (usually non-verbal clues) to make sure they have understood.  We must both take our turns and if the interaction goes off track, one or both of us must make a repair (clarify or explain our meaning) in order for the interaction to continue successfully, without either of us becoming unhappy.

  1. Edge of competence – just enough challenge

Fourthly, the guide has to be mindful of the student’s ‘edge of competence’.  If there is not enough challenge, the student may become bored and disengage.  If the challenge is too great, the student may withdraw because there is too much uncertainty, which creates anxiety.  At the student’s ‘edge of competence’ the challenge of uncertainty will be present…….but the student is able to trust the guide and – crucially – is able to use the guide as a reference point to decide what to do when faced with the uncertainty that accompanies the challenge.  If the student has not yet mastered the skill of using the guide as a reference point, the guide must anticipate possible challenges and be ready to provide ‘scaffolds’ (little bits of help) that enable the student to be successful.

To end my introduction, I’d like to share with you some video footage that shows two toddlers making a tower of bricks.

The first toddler is able to use the perspective of the adults present to reassure herself, to motivate her and to help her to emotionally regulate.  The communication between child (student) and adult (guide) shows the ‘togetherness’ of this interaction.

The first toddler is checking back in with Mum when she successfully places a brick; sharing her emotion about her own competence in placing the brick (she does a delightful little chuckle) and using Mum as her 'guide' when she misses a brick (Mum draws her attention to it and she responds by noticing the brick and placing it on top of the tower).

Compare this to the toddler in the nappy - this toddler is not referencing at all....his Mum might as well not be there. When the tower tumbles (presenting a challenge), he becomes very distressed and is unable to use Mum to help regulate himself (note how well the toddler in the first clip recovered when the tower tumbled, simply echoing Dad's 'Uh oh!').

If we have components 1-4 above in place, the student is in an excellent place to be able to use the co-regulatory relationship with their guide to master the developmental milestones that lead to: flexible thinking (and therefore, adaptive behaviour); perspective-taking; ability to manage uncertainty and change; and emotional regulation.  In our experience, it is difficulties in these areas that lie at the heart of autism and when these are present, they are the greatest barriers to personal growth and emotional development.

In my next blogpost, we’ll take a closer look at co-regulation - the basis for all social interaction - and I’ll share some examples of how we’ve worked on this at school.

Zoe Thompson
Follow me


  1. Kathy Darrow

    What a fantastic article! 15 years ago our family found RDI….my sons are are now 18 and 15…. Their lives would have turned out very very different if we had not done RDI!

We LOVE to hear what you think... please take a minute to add your views here, so your comment is seen by all!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.