By Victoria Goody, Chief Executive
One of the many joys of my job is observing the team when they go out to sessions. It provides me with so much information – from meeting people and putting faces to names; deepening my understanding of what we do and why; to giving me empirical evidence that the camping stools we use to perch on are entirely uncomfortable and I need to search for new ones!
Often the sessions I observe are energetic, vibrant and filled with laughter and joy – wonderful sessions which are guided by the people we are spending time with. But occasionally, sessions can be very quiet, almost to the point that if an observer walked past, they’d be hard pushed to describe what, if anything, was taking place.
My position as observer is generally out of the way, in a position where I can (hopefully) see, without being obtrusive or distracting to the session. This often means that the Practitioner is sitting facing away from me, opposite the person we’re visiting, who may even be blocked from my view. Because of the placement, I can miss out on some of the activity that is taking place; though in one recent session, I could tell that something was happening because of the frequent movements in the Practitioner’s upper arms, back and neck, so I assumed some hand movement was taking place between them. These smaller, subtler movements can be hard to distinguish from pauses, which are so central to our work in terms of us leaving space and not pressing the agenda. It is important not to assume the pauses are the “opposite of activity” in which nothing happens – quite the contrary is true. They are deliberate breaks, which we leave for the person we’re visiting to analyse and respond, in their own timeframe.
By focusing on what a person is not doing (i.e. grand gestures or vocalisations) and focusing on what they are doing, we focus on the purpose of the session – fostering engagement.
A session could be quiet for a wide variety of reasons – lack of sleep, recovering from an illness or seizure, or just being ‘out of sorts’. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that people with a learning disability have ‘off days’ just the same as the as the rest of us, when socialising is more of a chore than it normally is. We’re not doctors or therapists, and our job is not to work out why someone is quiet, but is to observe and respond accordingly. One thing we would notice, record and discuss with the home is: if there was a long ‘run’ of quiet sessions where a person was normally more active, could there be an underlying change that we should notice? A change in physical or mental health? We’d work with the home in order to try to understand any long-term change, as it could be an indicator of something more serious – such as the onset of dementia or a problem with pain.
This is particularly important in a group context, where several people are joining in enthusiastically, and one quiet person. We need to ensure that the activity of some does not drown out the subtle but equally important contribution from the quieter person.
It is important to note that our purpose in interaction during a quiet session is not to “jolly them up”, though this may be one of the outcomes. The purpose – like any Intensive Interaction session – is to engage with a person the way they choose to express themselves, at their pace, in their way. If you observe a session that looks quiet, perhaps speak to the Practitioner afterwards, and ask about what was happening that you might not have been able to observe – because the answer is probably “quite a lot”! If the spirit of a session happens to be a quiet one today, then that’s what we need to observe and celebrate for now.
If you would like an introduction to Intensive Interaction, please see: http://usinabus.org.uk/what-we-do/intensive-interaction/