“Our main agenda is not to have an agenda”
I first had the pleasure of meeting the Intensive Interaction Practitioner Janet Gurney, from the UK charity ‘Us in a Bus’, when I attended a workshop she was delivering in Ireland last Spring. Before that I was vaguely familiar with Intensive Interaction from the Speech and Language therapists linked to our school. It had been suggested that I try this communication method with a low-functioning pupil with ASD, so I decided to become more skilled in the technique. Once Janet began to describe the communication intervention in detail, I immediately saw this as a means of building bridges with those children in our school who were at the earliest stages of communication and social development. It appeared to offer an opportunity to reach out to the most isolated of our pupils and construct a relationship built on trust, empathy, respect, and a desire to ‘speak their language’.
Five months later and we have had Janet visit Ireland again to train our whole staff in using Intensive Interaction.
In the busy environment of a Special Needs school we worry about meeting standards, covering the curriculum, measuring progress. We are all used to the role of ‘directing proceedings’, ‘leading the learning’, so to speak. Our day is filled with activities and methods to encourage communication. Yet much of this is pointless until students become interested enough in us to want to engage. Many of our pupils are so severely disabled that they appear to be locked in their own world, unable or uninterested in communicating with others. We would often reflect and ask ourselves the question ‘How do we reach in? Engage? Show we are ready to listen?’ Instead of worrying about teaching a ‘curriculum’ we might be better disposed intensively engaging with these children until we showed them that what they communicate IS meaningful, regardless of how subtle, unsophisticated or unintentional it may be.
Many of these children have spent their whole lives in a state of having things done to them. And, conversely, we have spent all our time directing them, rather than interacting with them. As Janet insisted, the greatest resource for any child is an interested and compassionate member of staff. She explained that we would need to look for quiet, intimate times during the busy school day to find ‘windows of opportunity’ to celebrate any communication, however small. We were advised that it is pleasure and enjoyment that builds relationships. Therefore, a good starting point would be to shed all expectations and simply learn to enjoy space with another human being.
At the heart of intensive interaction is a belief that once one individual is interacting with another then, yes, social engagement is happening. By the end of our whole-school training day, the excitement was palpable amongst the staff. It was clear this idea made sense to every person attending, as what Janet described was familiar to us all. She had described situations that we daily found ourselves in yet we didn’t know that what we were doing had a name. This workshop gave us clarity about our aims and how to achieve them. Now we couldn’t wait to get started.
Getting to know each child and observing how they behave is an excellent starting point. Priority was given to our severe/profound class, simply because they are the children we most often ‘don’t know what to do with’. Phoebe Caldwell suggests we should get the child’s attention by whatever means necessary, though not by leading them, but by them leading us. We need to follow the conventions of normal conversation such as turn taking, pausing, reciprocity, imitation, and so forth. How intensive interaction is practiced in our school is determined on a case to case basis. While some children are brought to an environment free from distractions and noise, other interactions are more spontaneous and are often sparked by moments of intimacy between two people, such as sitting side by side on a beanbag, or during moments of personal care.
Our main agenda is not to have an agenda. Pleasure and enjoyment is what we are after. It is a celebration of communication, in the hope of leading to joint attention and social interaction. We want these children to know that their movements, sounds and actions have meaning. We want intensive interaction to be a holistic communication tool that can enhance the wellbeing of the child involved. It is a technique that has brought hope to the staff in our school who work with children on the severe to profound disability range. The wonderful thing about Intensive Interaction is that it is concerned with that most human of all qualities…the desire and the ability to communicate with another human being. It is early days yet, but we are excited about the future. Really we don’t believe it will be that difficult with a little patience, persistence and time. And of course, will.
‘The most generous gift we can offer others is our presence…(then) they will bloom like flowers.’
Thich Nhat Hahn
Michelle Jameson, Offaly, Ireland