Intensive Interaction

Author: Essaka Joshua

This week’s lecture helped to resolve several questions I’ve had in the past few entries, notably the issues I raised on October 8th in regards to imitation. My conclusion that mimicry is used informally in the classroom as a means of normal social interaction was only partially true – equality is the greater issue.

In the lecture, Gillian Needham of Riverside School introduced the idea of “Intensive Interaction,” developed in the 1970s in England by David Hewett and Melanie Nind. It is an approach to teaching pre-speech fundamentals of communications to those with Severe Learning Difficulties and Autism Spectrum Disorders, developed from research on communication within the first year of life.

Intensive Interaction is specially developed for those pupils who are determined to be “difficult to reach,” engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors, and showing no interest in other people. Some students may have social skills to an extent, but further need to develop their use and understanding of eye contact, facial expressions, and turn taking in exchanges of behavior. Basically, Intensive Interaction is an exchange between two people – the pupil and a trained instructor – based on mimicry. The Riverside faculty uses this method to teach students the enjoyment of being with another person, the skill of giving attention to another, and developing shared attention activities.

We watched several videos of formal Intensive Interaction between non-verbal students and trained instructors. The scene basically plays out like a silent game of Simon Says – the student raises her right arm, so does the instructor, the student claps her hands, the instructor follows, and this continues until the student loses either energy or attention. If the student does not lead the instructor, the instructor will provide motions for the student to mimic; oftentimes in the videos we could not tell who was following whom.

I was especially surprised by how long the sessions lasted. The students were pleased with themselves that they could lead the adult with these silly gestures and it was clear that they were aware of their leadership. At one point, the student scratched her nose, a gesture that didn’t appear to be part of the interaction to the instructor, and continued to scratch until the adult followed her lead. Communication is easiest when the expressed language, be it spoken or nonverbal, is of a similar sequence. In a mainstream classroom, imitation of the teacher indicates understanding of directions. Instructors’ imitation of Riverside students can accomplish the same thing, granting comfort, power, and potential to the pupils.

Reflecting on the lecture, I realize that much of what I had been observing in the classroom with Mark and David is a simplified form of intensive interaction. When the student and teacher can communicate in the same manner, precedents of trust and equality are formed. The interaction can be incredibly simple. For instance, Maleika, a non-verbal student with Down Syndrome in my classroom, will often sit next to me, hold my hand, and accompany me on class outings. It is extremely touching to have gained her trust over the past couple of months, especially considering that she remembers me from week to week though I am only in the classroom on Thursdays. Though nonverbal, Maleika will often play with her hands and clothes, with my hands and clothes, tap various body parts, or otherwise display engagement in a world of gestures. Before the lecture on Thursday, I found myself repeating her actions by intuition as a way of communicating with her.

Background on Dave Hewitt:

Further Information on Intensive Interaction: