Sometimes it’s hard to be patient, especially when the person you’re speaking to just isn’t getting it.
For example, imagine that you’re trying to explain to someone that you want to use the lawnmower. You’re signing /lawnmower/, and they keep agreeing with you but signing /home/. So you point to the shed right there in the farmyard, hoping that they’ll get the message…, and then they sign /home/ again! You listen carefully to what they’re saying and realise that they think you mean your shed at home. Carefully, you take their hand and guide it to the farm shed, gently touching their finger to the wood, then sign /lawnmower/ once again. They look confused and ask about your shed at home yet again. Finally, you take them by the hand and walk them backwards a little, pointing at the farm’s lawnmower right there in the shed. The person you’re trying to explain to starts to laugh, and finally replies that you can’t use the farm’s lawnmower because it’s time to go home, but that they’ll ask whether you can use it next time. Satisfied with that answer, you happily skip to the car to go home.
When I first met Adam, it was with a reputation that preceded him. New to the service, I had been told much about this tall and long-limbed young man, whose communication frustrations frequently boiled over into hitting, head-butting and hair-pulling. He was supported 3:1 on his education programme, with staff changing often as they became tired of managing his volatile behaviour. Our first meeting was insalubrious, as I arrived at his house alongside his staff team for the day to decide whether a cut he had received during an incident with another provider was too deep to allow him to come out with us that day. Adam was confused, frustrated and on edge, requiring the cajoling of all present to get safely into the car to begin his day. Constantly in motion and inarticulately agitated, Adam’s quality of education and support suffered daily from poor connections and misunderstandings.
Enter Intensive Interaction. First one staff member was trained, as a trial, then the majority of Adam’s team. The staff were initially wary of this new concept, concerned about how outsiders would see their copying of Adam’s vocalisations, and embarrassed at the thought of being filmed at work. But the benefits from having just one staff member trained were already beginning to show, and the whole team put their hesitations behind them and got stuck in to this new way of teaching Adam to communicate.
The changes – small though they might seem to an outsider – were dramatic. Adam began to use a wider range of Makaton signs, some of which he seemed to have remembered from school rather than being taught anew. In rare, peaceful moments Adam even tried spoken words: orange, bubble, book. Most significantly of all was the way Adam began to smile whenever Intensive Interaction was used. Every new connection seemed to thrill him and he began to request these exchanges, pointing to the chosen staff member who was to reply to his vocalisations and beaming when his directions were followed.
Adam became determined to get his point across effectively, and began in turn to mimic our systems of communication, combining gestures, pictures, signs, points of reference and repetition to convey complex messages about his thoughts, needs and preferences. We found that he was able to refer to past events and enquire about future ones, make jokes, and agree a compromise – all things we did not know he could do. Adam was showing us that he knew we could and would understand him, if only he could get the code right… and the code was in his hands.
Standing in the farm yard that day in June, I didn’t know that there was a lawnmower (one of Adam’s favourite sources of sensory feedback) in the farm shed. I thought Adam was seeking my reassurance that he could use the lawnmower at home, and was trying to give that to him, interpreting his gestures as best I could. Back in September, Adam had thrown a CD player at my head during a similar misunderstanding, but not this time. Instead, he used the skills we’d been using with him – patience, calmness, repetition, trying different forms of communication – to get his point across.
Thanks to Intensive Interaction, Adam was able to take my hand, step past his autistic spectrum condition and severe learning difficulties, and teach me something new. What a moment!
No Limits East Midlands