What is 'Intensive Interaction' and why do we use it?

Intensive Interaction is a well-established and successful approach, used to encourage people with profound learning disabilities or autism, to make the most of their fundamental communication skills – and to use those skills to build meaningful connections with the social world.

In schools, in families and in a range of adult services, for over 30 years, it has been used to combat isolation and open up opportunities.

It can be a joyful, exciting and revealing way for people to explore self-expression and gain a meaningful sense of connection with others.  


It has been called many things since the mid 1980’s – Augmented Mothering, Co-Creative Communication, Responsive Communication – but actually it goes back a lot further than that and is an un-named, universal, human experience.

There isn’t anyone reading this article who hasn’t experienced Intensive Interaction. It is based on the way all humans learn to make their journey from the basic, reactive communication skills they were born with, towards their full communicative potential. For most of us, this will be a range of intentional communication skills which lead to mastering the art of using language.

For many of the people Us in a Bus support, they are still on this journey – and it is our job and our privilege to help them explore their own individual communicative potential.


So, how does it work for us all?

Have you ever noticed that you have a tendency to copy babies? They sneeze, you say “Atichoo!” They open their mouth wide – so do you, often adding a sound or a word. They look straight at you – and you look straight back. They babble – you babble back (even if you think you are singing). Often we are unaware that we are doing it, but it seems to be a response that is hard-wired into us all.

When we copy a baby, we are entertaining and stimulating them, of course, but far more importantly, we are effectively saying “I’ve noticed you!” Every time we do that, the baby’s sense of itself is confirmed. It gradually learns that it can have a deliberate influence on us; it is then ready to make the move from simply expressing its response to a stimuli (it cries when it is hungry or cold or lonely) to demanding our attention – it is on its path to language.


That is exactly what happened to you. But what if you had had a profound learning disability or a complex condition (such as autism) that made you unable to absorb the “I notice you!” messages that people sent you? You could well still be struggling with your sense of self. In fact, the habits, movements, sounds and actions you make yourself might well have had far more impact on your sense of self than anything the people around you were doing to respond to you. You might feel disconnected from the world and the people in it.

Intensive Interaction simply encourages us to re-explore the vital stage of confirmation – the “I notice you” stage of communicative development. If we notice what someone is doing, (at whatever age or stage of development they are at) and find a way of copying it back to them in a way that is accessible and meaningful, we have a good chance of helping them create a bridge between their inner world and the social world.


If Intensive Interaction is that easy, why isn’t it being used with everybody who needs it?

Well, that is our aim at Us in a Bus and we are working towards it through the services it provides and the training it offers. We have to accept that yes, the theory is simple, but it takes skills and determination to persist in its use. We need excellent observation skills, patience, persistence, courage, empathy and more. If you were watching us use Intensive Interaction, you might see us being quite dramatic – moving our arms and swaying in response to someone’s rhythmic rocking. Or it might be hard to notice we are doing anything – because we are quietly echoing the gently “Buh, buh, buh” sound someone is making with their breath.

What we will be waiting and watching for is a subtle change in someone’s rhythm or sound which tells us they have noticed that we are speaking their ‘language’. Then our job is to foster the sense of intentionality that person is discovering, by shifting our response to follow their pauses and changes.

We all know what real engagement feels like when we experience it. Knowing that we are acknowledged, listened to, understood, respected and liked is pretty special. That’s what Intensive Interaction can achieve in the lives of the people we support; what a privilege to be part of the process of Connecting Lives.


Us in a Bus
Us in a Bus is a Registered Charity (number 1088570). We depend entirely upon income generated from providing sessions with clients, training and consultancy fees and the generosity of individuals and grant giving organisations to continue to deliver our work.
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