Last week I found myself lying on the floor, looking up at Phoebe (not her real name) while she reached for my mouth. She laughed, enjoying the buzzing sound as I hummed against her open palm. In our therapy sessions we often play with stories and songs, taking turns with sounds and gestures. We usually sit on the floor, but lying down was a new ‘low’ for me. It was worth the shift. I was amazed by how positioning myself below Phoebe’s gaze made her so much more attentive.
With the help of a specialist, Phoebe’s family and I were exploring our use of Intensive Interaction. This is an approach to developing fundamental communication skills, such as eye contact and taking turns. Core to all of this is to simply enjoy being with another person.
We were considering how to develop her interest in people’s faces, developing her voice, expression and intention. As is often the case, this was yet another exercise in ‘less is more’. When we said less, we noticed more. When we did less, we gave Phoebe room to do more.
It is easy to find ourselves in the role of entertainer, being bright and busy, driving the play to such an extent that it becomes difficult to simply ‘be’. But by slowing down, tuning in and noticing how Phoebe was communicating, we enabled her to lead the interaction.
Intensive Interaction follows a ‘natural model’ of communication learning, looking at the early interactions between parents and babies. The research has observed how gentle imitation, interested facial expressions and an animated voice form part of the natural flow of an early interaction. Even at this early stage, babies are learning about the structure, the to-and-fro of conversation.
There are aspects of this early interaction that stay with us throughout our lives. In adult conversations you may find yourself reflecting someone’s comment or gesture. People often tell me how they can accidentally acquire the accent of whomever they’re speaking with. This is just one of many ways that we tune in and reflect whomever we’re speaking to.
This type of tuned-in interaction demands patience. It requires us to understand how waiting is a powerful part of interaction. But it can also be refreshing, to go at the child’s pace, to notice what is interesting to them and to leave being the ‘entertainer’ for another day.