Intensive Interaction

Intensive Interaction is a well established and proven approach to working with people who either find communication or being social challenging including those who have learning disabilities, profound and complex needs and/or autism. It is one of the main tools we use in our work to support the people we work with to have a sense of themselves and explore their influence in their own world. We work in a relaxed but focused way that is guided by our knowledge of how communication develops in young children.

Intensive Interaction was first developed in a long stay hospital where a group of staff were struggling to get to know their students with learning disabilities who had no speech or sign language communication. Intensive Interaction was the name given to the technique they developed together over time of how they learnt how to get communication and social relationships started. It is now widely used in education and adult services. (see Nind & Hewett, 1994, Access to Communication).


Valuing People Now

According to the strategy document ‘Valuing People Now: ‘Making it happen for everyone’ (DoH, 2009) the UK Government’s vision is that all people with learning disabilities ‘are supported to become empowered citizens’. This document, a follow up to the original ‘Valuing People’ Document (2001), explicitly states that, for people with complex needs, where social inclusion is concerned:

1.6 addressing the issues for people with complex needs is really about embedding the principles of personalisation within all aspects of planning, commissioning and delivery of support services. It is also about recognising that the very particular support needs of an individual will mean very individualised support packages, including systems for facilitating meaningful two-way communication.

Page 38 of the document is then completely given over to an exposition of Intensive Interaction, with some historical background, comments on the strategies involved, and a brief passage on the possible beneficial outcomes. It goes on to state that people with learning disabilities should be enabled and supported to ‘develop and use appropriate communication systems where people have little or no verbal communication’ (p.39).

Top Tips

Us in a Bus uses Intensive Interaction to find ‘ways in’ with people who are otherwise very isolated. Through careful observation we learn the significance of people’s behaviours, find ways to connect and establish some common ground. Then we can experiment together, trying out various activities and interactions, exploring movement, sound, touch and playfulness, to encourage people to develop their sociability and communication abilities – and we hope, to enjoy themselves in the process.

The Us in a Bus team have written some Top Tips for those practising Intensive Interaction. This has certainly stretched our imaginations as every time we think we’ve narrowed it down, another one pops up and demands to be let in. So to keep this exercise inside the realm of possibility, we have assumed that the Top Tips are for people who already know the basics of Intensive Interaction and want tips for focusing and developing their practices. So…


1. Hold the space

Don’t rush to fill gaps. The spaces are where the important stuff happens for your partner (assimilation, recognition, confirmation, sense of control), so stay observant and wait.

2. Embrace repetition

Your partner will let you know when they are ready to move on. This process needs to stay at your partner’s pace, not yours, so persist in confirming their behaviour in clear and recognizable ways.

3. Stop when you’re told to

Keep all your senses open to your partner’s “stop” signs; they need to be in charge. But don’t mistake “stop” as their lack of interest in the process; be prepared to offer the opportunity again, carefully considering mood, time, space etc.

4. Am I on purpose?

Keep checking the purpose behind your actions. You are exploring mutual engagement. If you find you have slipped into ‘entertainment’ or that you are pushing for a result, then stop, get back on-purpose and tune into your partner again.

 5. Be more than a mirror

Keep thinking “are there other ways to celebrate aspects of my partner’s inner language? How else can I offer confirmation?”. The only limit is your imagination, flexibility and your willingness to simply give it a go.

Useful Books & Links

A Practical Guide to Intensive Interaction Melanie Nind and David Hewett This book does what it says on the label! It offers clear steps to take to help you communicate more effectively with people with learning disabilities, offering examples of interaction for inspiration and guidance. BILD Publications

Person to Person Phoebe Caldwell Establishing contact and communication with people with profound learning disabilities and those whose behaviour may be challenging. Pavilion

You don’t know what it’s like Phoebe Caldwell Finding ways of building relationships with people with severe learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorder and other impairments. Pavilion