Developing themes (what do I do now?)

bev and kenzieAt the recent Intensive Interaction Co-ordinators Weekend participants had the opportunity to show films of their practice.  One video that we watched showed one teacher doing a very good job of copying the behaviour of her partner.  The interaction continued for over 5 minutes and the teacher had the skill to reflect back everything that she could see her partner do.  The question we were asked having watched the film was what could she do next.  This (rather long) post is a response to this.
The teacher’s question about what to do next and how to move things forward is not an uncommon one in my experience.  On the co-ordinator course I explained my view that copying is the foundation skill of Intensive Interaction – the ability to reflect the behaviour of your partner and only do what you see.  To be able to do this well means that we are skilled in observation, that we are not obstructed by feelings of self-consciousness and we are able to adapt our behaviour to match that of our partner.  To reach this level is a good achievement so why do we still ask how to move things on or what should we do next?
The question comes if our approach is to just copy. If we only reflect the behaviour of our partner then the resulting interaction can feel functional and a bit flat – lacking the sort of emotional content and mutual pleasure that the practitioner may have expected perhaps having seen videos of other practitioners doing Intensive Interaction.
To help find a solution we can think of interactions in term of themes. This is a familiar concept in verbal discussions where a theme usually describes the subject of the conversation e.g. the weather, a holiday, the problem at work etc.  In Intensive Interaction we can apply this idea of themes to describe the game, joint focus activity or turn taking sequence  that we are playing with our partner.  By thinking of the game in terms of a theme we can more easily understand how to develop the interaction as we would in a verbal discussion with friends or, as in the following example, in a very familiar game that we have all played.
Imagine a game of throw and catch.  One person throws the ball and their partner throws it back.  The first person throws the ball again and their partner throws it back once more.  The ball is thrown and returned ten or fifteen times in an identical way.  Something about the game then changes – the first person takes a few steps back and throws the ball to their partner.  The throw is a little less accurate so their partner has to jump to catch the ball.  They succeed and turn to smile at the thrower before throwing it back.  The ball is thrown and caught a few more times and then one of the partners makes a choice to bounce the ball instead of throwing it.  Their partner manages to catch the bouncing ball and returns the ball with a bounce to continue the game.
In this example the theme is ‘throw and catch’.  The theme was established once the ball had been thrown back and forth a few times.  Once the ball was thrown a few more times we saw that something changed and one of the partners took a few steps back.  Why did this happen? We have all been in this situation and so we can empathise with the players because we know that after 20 identical throws the game would feel a bit boring or samey.  The players response to this feeling was to move further away.  When we think about this in terms of themes we can say that the player was trying to develop the theme and that the method they chose to achieve this was to change the distance (proximity).  This increased the challenge and made the theme less predictable and so when one player succeeded in catching the ball they smiled – an emotional communication.  The theme continued in its evolved state until again it no longer held the interest in the same way as it did a few turns ago.  One of the players was further motivated to develop the theme and so they chose to bounce the ball instead of throwing it.  This seemed to work too and the players continued enjoying their game.
We can apply the same thinking to our intensive interaction practice.  Doing this brings up a few interesting questions…
What should we do if the theme feels boring or samey?
This feeling probably means one of two things.  Either the theme has lost interest for both partners and needs to develop or the theme is something that needs to be rehearsed by our less skilled partner and we as practitioners need to be more more patient.
How do I intentionally develop a theme?
To develop a theme we change a quality of the theme such as:

  • Rhythm
  • Pace
  • Strength of our actions
  • Proximity or distance from our partner
  • Position in relation to our partner or the game
  • Adding or refraining from using a sound
  • Volume of our sounds
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) use of eye contact
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) using physical contacts
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) using gestures

To do this well so that it flows naturally requires good timing.  Initially when you try to change these qualities of the theme you may feel a bit clumsy or you may find that you break the theme.  With practice you will notice an opportunity to develop the theme but you may miss it.  With more practice you will find that you see the opportunity and you can take it in a relaxed way so that the theme develops and the play flows naturally.  Success in developing the theme is evidenced in feelings of anticipation and expectation and enjoyment when this tension is resolved.  A classic example of this is using burst-pause e.g. not saying the last word of a known nursery rhyme and then completing the rhyme to much enjoyment.
Doesn’t all this mean that I am being directive?
Being directive means that you are giving instructions that do not offer your partner choices.  When we develop a theme we should be taking opportunities to make a contribution to the interaction in the same way that a person answers a question in a typical verbal discussion or indeed asks a question.  If, in the example of a discussion, one partner interrupts and asks an inappropriate question that has little to do with the theme in debate, then it is likely they will break the theme and the conversation.  If however the same person waits until the other person has finished what they have to say, considers their point of view and asks a relevant question that takes the debate forward then the contribution is made appropriately and the theme is therefore more likely to keep the interest of both people.
In conclusion, natural and enjoyable intensive interaction communication is a collaboration between two people and so it is perfectly reasonable for the practitioner to make contributions to the interaction.  We need to develop reflective practice in order to understand how to do this this well with people who lack fundamental social skills because they do not respond in the way that we are used to during interactions with our typically developed friends or colleagues and therefore our habitual way of interacting may not work.  People with learning disabilities can be very sensitive to the behaviour of human beings and so to develop natural communication we must understand how interaction works in the same way as a person from another country will seek to understand the grammar and syntax of a foreign language.  If we can understand the ‘grammar and syntax’ of interaction then we can intentionally apply these principles during intensive interaction and with practice we will find that interactions develop more emotional content, feel less functional, feel more satisfying and result in more mutual pleasure.

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