Let's talk about themes!

When I arrived at Woolley Wood on Wednesday the first thing that was brought up in discussion by my colleague Bev was that she had been approached by staff from one class team who said that they would be uncomfortable replicating some of the things that I had been doing in their class the previous week.  From the perspective of both myself and also the deputy head who had been observing that day, the interaction in question had been wonderful and, as Bev and I watched the video of the session, I struggled to see how there could have been a problem.  The context was that I was working with a 9 year old autistic boy who is often described by staff as a ‘loner’.  We had begun by jumping on the spot when when he offered his hands to me and then he had begun to push his hands toward me.  This developed into the classic trust game whereby one partner loses their balance and the other catches them.  Later on the boy pulled my hands to his waist so I could lift him a little in another jumping game.  Maybe you are reading this and thinking that the staff reluctance was something to do with physical touch… or perhaps it the staff did not want to do it because the games were quite energetic and they had less energy than me.  It turned out that, while these elements had something to do with it,  there was a deeper issue at play.
Following a discussion with the class teacher I headed to the classroom to talk over the issue.  It turned out that the staff thought that they had to do exactly what I had been doing: that this is what Intensive Interaction with the boy in question has to look like and that they would have to do this too.  The staff did not want to lift the boy because they were not as strong as me and they said that I had been sitting in ways that they might find uncomfortable.  ‘Okay’, I said, ‘Let’s talk about themes!’.
I explained to the staff that an interaction can be seen to be played out in a series of themes, in much the same way as a verbal discussion is formed around a theme or topic such as the weather.  During a verbal discussion or intensive interaction, the topics of conversation or themes of interaction can be said to be defined by the interests and abilities that are shared by both partners. For example, if both partners enjoy throw and catch then this is a way that they can be together, if both partners enjoy talking about the weather then this is one way that they can start a conversation [and be together].  In addition to shared interests, themes in intensive interaction can also be limited by other factors – because Intensive Interaction is non-verbal and therefore a kind of body language communication our strength and fitness will also sometimes have a bearing on the themes that we are willing or able to engage in, in much the same way that our vocabulary may limit us in a verbal conversation.
I went on to explain that themes are just ways for two people to achieve the aim of being together and sharing space in a relaxed and enjoyable way.   By observing the behaviour of our partner we can find themes that we would like to join in with.  By assuming that their behaviour has social meaning we can find ways for us join in and the theme of the resulting interaction will have come from us too – in terms of our observations and what we feel comfortable with.  This is much more likely to result in success rather than trying to replicate somebody else’s game out of context. One more way to explain this is that the themes or interests that our partner engages in can be seen in the same way as a musician has a repertoire of songs.  As a musician I may share some repertoire with one friend and therefore sing a certain song with them but this does not mean that, in order to enjoy being with a different musician, I have to sing the same song.  Instead I’ll just listen to what he is playing and find some other music that we have in common.  The song (or theme) has changed but the principles of finding a way to be together and share space is the same.
To highlight this idea, and that interactions consist of multiple themes, consider the following example:
Mary and Bob just met for the first time at an Intensive Interaction training day over a cup of coffee.
Mary: Hi, I’m Mary… 
Bob: Hi Mary, I’m Bob…
Mary: How was your journey here today, Bob?
Bob: Oh it was ok thanks… did you have far to come?
Mary: Only over the hills… weather was a bit dreary though… did you get the rain where you were?
Bob: No rain, but it was a bit misty this morning… that soon cleared as the sun came up though… 
Mary: So Bob, how did you come to be interested in Intensive Interaction?
Bob: Well, that’s a great story.  For many years I had worked in a special school and one day we went to a training day on Intensive Interaction and it was like a lightbulb moment for me. [smiles] I realised that this was the basis for some of the things that I had been doing intuitively.  I’ve been using the approach ever since.
Mary [smiling]: It was much like that for me….etc 
Thinking about the this discussion in terms of themes can prove quite interesting.  Mary and Bob have not met each other before and Mary has approached Bob with the aim of sharing space with him by having a relaxed conversation.  The first theme that she instigates is that of sharing names [highlighted in green].  Knowing this would be a short exchange she begins another theme by asking how Bob’s journey was [highlighted in blue].  After another short exchange Mary changed the theme to that of the weather [highlighted in red] .  This resulted in more small talk before Mary changed the theme again by asking about Bob’s interest in Intensive Interaction.  She felt that this was a good choice given the context and the question seems to spark his interest.  He shows some emotional communication by smiling and this is returned by Mary as she then shares her story of how she became interested in Intensive Interaction.
This example shows how one interaction can be composed of many themes and how, as in the example of Mary, the concept of themes can help us to find different ways to share space with our partner during intensive interaction.  Note that Mary was offering questions to Bob rather than giving him instructions and that it is clear that he could have answered in a number of ways, including rejecting her offer of communication.  Mary’s approach to being with Bob seems to have been successful but by following her example we may find that we are cueing or instigating more than we might like to and so we might prefer to take an approach more like that of Bob.
On reflection, we could well see that Bob was following the principles of Intensive Interaction. For example he joined in with the themes that Mary was interested in and then responded and changed to the next theme when she lost interest in the previous one.  In the first three themes about names, journeys and weather he simply reciprocated Mary’s communication style with a short relaxed appropriate response and then, when she asked about Intensive Interaction he saw the potential for enjoyable sustained dialogue due to the fact that it was likely to be an interest that they shared with enthusiasm.  Based on this observation he took the opportunity to consciously offer a smile and, following the reciprocation by Mary, the interaction evolved to a more emotional level.
In summary then we can see that interactions can be composed of a number of themes.  As practitioners our skill is in how to to share space by joining in with the themes our partner is interested in, decide when to follow or stay with a particular theme when our partner changes and and also to take opportunities for natural interaction by instigating and developing appropriate themes.  Underlying the themes are the principles of intensive interaction and good practice comes from understanding and applying these principles rather than just trying to replicate the themes that somebody else did.
Finally, the example of Mary and Bob also throws up some other interesting things such as how as practitioner’s we can have a strategy for the interaction while at the same time trying to engage in natural play, and also that there was a  difference in Mary and Bob’s view of what was happening.  These issues are addressed in the series on Mindfulness and Intensive Interaction, Part 3 of which will be posted next week.

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