By Carol Thomas, Interaction Practitioner
Intensive Interaction is an approach used to encourage engagement with people who find communication, or being social, a challenge. These people can seem to be locked in their own world and we at ‘Us in a Bus’ aim to make connections, working in a relaxed way with people with learning disabilities, profound and complex needs, autism and challenging behaviour. By focusing on the person that we work with and observing what they do, we can begin to get a sense of them and how we can then find a ‘way in’ to their world. This requires observing their vocalisations, movements and use of touch and we, in turn, reflect this back in a way that they are familiar with. This ‘conversation’ develops over time within the relationship and space that constitutes an ‘Us in a Bus’ session. It’s an important conversation, one that begins with observation, and listening, hoping to notice the subtleties that will be our way of building a bridge to their inner world. But how can this happen if we are not able to hear them?
The Intensive Interaction Institute highlights the fundamentals of communication on which Intensive Interaction is based. These include being able to “give brief attention to another person” and “developing shared attention in activities”. But what is this ‘attention’ that is mentioned? As defined in the Oxford dictionary, ‘attention’ is ‘notice taken of someone or something: the regarding of someone or something as important’. In order for us to ensure importance, we need to give that someone ‘special care’ and that includes all aspects of our time with them. It’s not ‘special care’ if we haven’t even taken the time to consider all aspects of the interaction and that includes where the session is held.
The need to have a safe, quality space is not just a requirement from us here at Us in a Bus either. I’m sure you’ll agree that we all have a need for a space within our own homes that we can feel happy in: a place to retreat when the children are being noisy, or a clean and tidy space to feel uncluttered in our minds too. This notion is also discussed in the book ‘The Intensive Interaction handbook’ by Dave Hewett, Mark Barber, Graham Firth and Tandy Harrison. In it, they talk about the need to minimise potentially negative and distracting environmental aspects which might include televisions, distracting people and safety issues. These are exactly the things that we aim to address when commencing an Us in a Bus session. We will often turn radios and TVs off if we can see that no-one is interested in them, ask people if we can position them differently, assess any environmental risks and ensure the space is a nice ambient temperature. We physically prepare the space, aiming to support people as best we can for the time we have together.
An ideal environment for meaningful engagement should be familiar, comfortable and quiet enough for us to be able to tune in to the subtlest of vocalisations. Many people we support are highly sensitive, and loud noises and harsh smells may create a difficult environment to be in. This anxiety can manifest in distressed behaviour. Similarly, an unfamiliar area may increase anxiety and make it difficult for the person to be open to external influences. Various therapies have, for years, acknowledged the need for a therapeutic space and, although we aren’t offering therapy, there is a lot to be learned from their creation of this ‘space’. This space, where we can begin to make our own connections and relationships, is as important as what happens within it. Having adequate light and space, a simple and distraction-free space where ambient noise such as corridor chatter is minimised, clean and free from overpowering smells. This framework should be a constant, especially for those with Autism, where change can be difficult. As someone with Autism can find too much sensory input overwhelming every effort should be made to get this environment right. Not all spaces are perfect, but with a little consideration all can be ‘good enough’ in order to achieve a great connection without distraction.
So if you’ve ever wondered why we always ask if we can turn off the TV when we arrive at someone’s home, it’s so that we can create a space where we can really concentrate, and offer the person we’re supporting the ‘special care’ they deserve and need.