An Insight Into The World Of Autistic Children

By Muriel Reddy in Australia

In a photo, he is enjoying a foot spa with a tranquil expression on his 12-year-old face.

This is a happy look for Michael Ainsworth, whose world has more often than not been defined by uncontrolled screaming and tantrums. And to the staff at the Bayside Special Developmental School in Moorabbin, it stands as a testament to the wonders of a technique they have been piloting over the past 11 months.

Michael, who suffers from severe autism and intellectual disabilities, is one of 15 children in the pilot project that uses a technique called “intensive interaction” to enter their worlds and to communicate with them.

Although it has been used extensively in Britain where it was developed, it is thought to be breaking new ground in Australia.

“Intensive interaction is based on looking at what the child does and going there with him,” explained Mark Barber, who has introduced the approach at Bayside. “We enter their world as opposed to making them come into ours. You look at the things that seem to have meaning for that child, and you see if you can get an invitation into the conversation he is having with himself.”

Children with profound intellectual disabilities or autism tend to live in a world they cannot control, and typically are withdrawn. Intensive interaction attempts to intrude into that world, using a form of communication that the child recognises.

“The whole approach is based on communication,” said Dr Barber. “You
are using the behaviour that the person uses in isolation to bring him
into a social activity. The communication currency is his, and the teacher uses
that currency to establish a line of communication.”

At the heart of the approach is giving a sense of dignity and value
to the person with the disability.

“One of the phrases that has guided me was coined by Phoebe
Caldwell, a renowned practitioner of the technique in Britain. She asked, ‘Do we value people with intellectual disabilities for the people that they are, or for the people that we want them to be?'”

Dr Barber said that up to 15 children, ranging in age from five to 16, were involved in the Moorabbin pilot project, and none had any formal communication skills. “All but one has been diagnosed as being on the
autistic spectrum. These are young people who have tended to be very hard
to reach. They may have a very solitary focus, not willing at all to
communicate with the outside world.”

Although emphasising that the technique was not a cure, Dr Barber
said he was hugely encouraged by the results so far.

According to Rosemary Gallagher, principal at Bayside Special
Developmental School, there is great excitement about the results being
achieved. She said teachers at the school had invested long hours in
learning how to apply the technique.

Michael, who was one of the school’s most challenging children, is
now beginning to communicate in words, sometimes even sentences. “He is also showing signs of being able to enjoy the company of other people,” she

“He always actively resisted company and comfort.”

To learn more about “Intensive Interaction”:

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