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Intensive Interaction Workshop Summary

Jemma Swales has developed this workshop organised by SHINE for Autism with the intention of educating parents/carers about Intensive Interaction.


  • Intensive Interaction is an effective way of communicating and developing emotional engagement with children and adults on the Autistic Spectrum.

  • It is an approach based on our first exchanges in the parent-infant dialogue.  The baby initiates a sound or movement, the parent confirms it and, in due course, the baby moves on.  For example, the baby may say ‘boo’, to which the parent responds ‘boo’, confirming what the baby has said.

  • It is a way of working with someone using sensory signals with which that person is so familiar that the signals do not trigger sensory distortions or sensitivities.  Intensive Interaction uses the individual’s own body language to build up emotional engagement.

  • Intensive Interaction begins with observation.  What is this individual doing?  What are they focusing on?  The brain may fixate on any of a multitude of activities, ranging from as little as the individual’s breathing rhythm, to fixations on certain activities or themes.  What such activities have in common is that they allow the individual to cut down on the external stimuli, which are overloading their brain, enabling the individual to focus instead on a conversation between their brain and the sensation they are getting from the stimulus.  The repetitive behaviours are more than just ‘comforting’, they are the language that the brain understands without having to go through elaborate processing – the sounds, images or feelings seem to be hard-wired in.  Intensive Interaction actively uses them to engage the individual’s attention. 


When we use Intensive Interaction, we are trying to shift our conversation partner’s attention from solitary self-stimulation to shared activity, remembering that what is important is not just what they are doing but how they are doing it.  As soon as the individual’s brain perceives something that it recognises as part of its own repertoire, their attention is attracted like iron filings to a magnet.

As parents and practitioners, we have to learn their language so that we can begin to have a conversation with them.


If we merely mirror the individual’s behaviours, we may catch their attention but after a while they have a tendency to lose interest.  Interaction tapers off.  One of the questions often asked by care-givers is ‘what do we do next?’  The answer is, rather than just imitating what the individual is doing, we need to treat everything they do as elements of a language and think of our responses to their initiatives as responses in an open-ended conversation. 

When we use Intensive Interaction, we use empathy to tune in to the individual’s sounds or movements but we do not use words, since words are difficult for the individual’s brain to process.  Our aim is to interact with the individual’s brain in a way that does not raise their stress level.


The use of Intensive Interaction has shown that the individual’s eye contact increases, they accept greater physical proximity from their conversation partner and are generally more socially responsive. As stress levels reduce, the individual may also experience cognitive improvements.  Aloneness becomes shared interest.  


At the workshop Jemma Swales showed a selection of Youtube videos where Phoebe Caldwell works with children who she has never met before and who have been selected because staff find them difficult to engage with.  Phoebe demonstrates how, by using the child’s own body language and sounds to create a ‘language’ that they recognise, a ‘conversation’ can be developed with children who are unable to use conventional communicative methods.

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