This is why I come to work! (or Intensive Interaction and staff engagement)

Currently I am working at four care settings near Doncaster run by the Hesley Group.  Two of the services are secondary schools, one is a college for 18-25 year olds and the other is for adults.  All four settings are residential services for people living with autism (sometimes in combination with a severe learning disability) and the support workers find many of the service users challenging to care for.
My favourite job title for what I do on these four days is “Social Learning Mentor”.  Why?  Because this describes the three main aims of my work:

  1. To improve the quality of life of the service users by helping them to learn fundamental social skills.
  2. To help the staff learn how to bridge the communication gap and develop deeper relationships with the person they support.
  3. To facilitate the development of a community of practice (social learning) centred around 1 and 2.

I know how to achieve my first objective because there is a very effective method… Intensive Interaction.  As Dave Hewett recently said on a video “We should be using an intervention that focuses dynamically and socially on the major aspects of the impairment which is social communication”. This is exactly what intensive interaction does and the efficacy of the approach is evidenced, not only by the major textbooks on the approach, but in the way that practitioners light up when they describe the benefits of their work.  Practitioners really seem to love this way of working.  I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Dave Hewett continues to say that we should use this approach a lot with the supported person.  This I know to be true because, not only have I seen Dave’s videos and other case studies, I have also seen first hand the profound impact sustained intensive interaction can have upon a persons quality of life. However, because I only work one day a week in each Hesley setting, I can’t apply this sustained approach on my own.
This brings me my second aim, and the my main theme for this post, to train the staff in intensive interaction so that they can help the service user too.  Well, this was my original aim but over sustained periods of mentoring and training support workers, I found that this purpose, to do intensive interaction to teach communication skills, didn’t create enough passion for all of the staff to take it up. In a recent conversation, Graham Firth (II Project Leader in Leeds) confirmed my theory as to why this is true.  While he and Dave Hewett are used to training people, parents and staff who have already decided to learn Intensive Interaction and attend one of the courses that the Intensive interaction Institute offer, my work often involves training and inspiring staff who have not chosen to be trained.  This makes a big difference.  While a training day offering intensive interaction to the wider public as an approach to deal with a challenge of teaching communication skills can attract attendees who share and have been inspired by this common purpose, I have to find a common challenge that unites the closed population of staff in the places that I work.  Teaching communication skills will inspire some staff for sure but for a true community of practice to flourish I ended up looking for something more universal.
Supporting the people that live in the Hesley Group care setting can be very challenging and consequently the job can be quite stressful.  Acknowledging this was an important step in connecting with the staff (rather than giving them something else they had to do on top of their workload) and I started to look at what the benefits are for the practitioner rather than placing the emphasis on the service user.  I already mentioned that practitioners ‘light up’ when they describe their Intensive Interaction practice and so I wondered if I could offer the approach as something that could find this joy in an otherwise difficult job.
I describe this feeling as “this is why I came to work” and I started to ask staff what makes a moment like this for them.  The answers seem to fall into two camps, either the fruit of the staffs hard labours (like teaching someone to use a spoon for a year and finally seeing the person achieve this) or making a connection with the person they support, stepping into their world, seeing them happy, making them smile.
So, I started to offer Intensive Interaction to support workers as an approach to find these moments of “this is why I came to work”.  I asked staff what happens to the stress of the day when you find a moment like this.  The universal answer is that the stress disappears and you can go home “buzzing… feeling really warm knowing that I done a really good job”.  All it takes is seconds of meaningful connection, play, co-created dialogue, smiles, recognition or new permission and a stressful negative day can become a positive one.
While one of these moments is enough for a difficult day to turn positive (and this fact alone should be enough for anyone to give it a go), it is through the repetition of these moments that trust and relationship with the people we support are forged.  With a deeper relationship the care work can become more straightforward and much more satisfying and we can take pride from knowing that we are helping a person to be less isolated and to experience the joy of human interaction.