A Dual Aspect Process Model of Intensive Interaction

Firth, G. (2009) British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(1), 43-49.

Since the 1980s, intensive Interaction has been employed to meet the social and communicative needs of people with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties and/or autism. The approach, which employs naturalistic interactions with learning disabled people based on the ‘infant-caregiver’ interactional model, was initially developed by teachers Dave Hewett and Melanie Nind (Access to Communication, 1994).

However, in this paper the author contends that certain aspects of the approach are not universally conceptualised, and that published definitions of the approach do not necessarily advance a single consistent conceptualisation or procedural philosophy. It is also the author’s view that, in the majority of cases across the multi-disciplinary community of Intensive Interaction practitioners and advocates, there emerge two general process models that are used to describe or conceptualise Intensive Interaction.                                                                                                           

Firstly there is a ‘Social Inclusion Process Model’. This model advocates a primary aim of inclusively responding to a learning disabled person’s communication, however it is expressed. When alluding to this model, practitioners tend to use terminology such as ‘communication’1, ‘understanding’1, ‘shared language2 and ‘connecting’2 to describe the process. This process model appears to be evidenced by practitioners who recount instances of an initial rapid expansion of a learning disabled person’s sociability and communicative practice, presumably as their latent communicative means are expressed in response to Intensive Interaction techniques.

Secondly, and subsequent to the first model, there is a ‘Developmental Process Model’ of communicative skill progression and acquisition. This model espouses a need to have educative or   developmental goals when using Intensive Interaction. Indeed with such a ‘Developmental Process Model’ it is any resultant communicative or cognitive skill acquisition that is the major aim of any Intensive Interaction intervention. When alluding to this process model practitioners tend to use terminology such as ‘learning’1+2, ‘developmental’2, and ‘extending’2.

As can be seen in the diagrammatic representation of what the author calls a ‘Dual Aspect Process Model’ of Intensive Interaction both process models may be seen as representing differing aspects or stages of Intensive Interaction. Lying between the stages is what the author calls a transitional phase, which begins as the initial rapid expansion of interactive behaviour associated with a ‘Social Inclusion Process Model’ tails off. The author also states that such a transitional phase is already described by the term ‘plateauing’ (Nind & Hewett, 2nd ed. 2005, p.134). Any progress subsequent to this ‘plateauing’ requires the onset of the ‘Developmental Process Model’ during which a more gradual development of the learning disabled person’s communicative skills takes place.

Interestingly, across the body of published research into Intensive Interaction, shorter, generally non-educational research carried out over days or weeks, according to the author, seems to support a rapid ‘social inclusion process model’ of increased responsiveness. In contrast, in those papers written from an educational perspective (carried out over months, terms or years), there are claims made that the novel or increased social responses arise out of an extended learning or developmental process. And thus, the author claims, these longer-term research studies provide evidence for a ‘Developmental Process Model’.

This paper goes on to give a broader analysis of learning theory to help describe the process through which social inclusion supports developmental progression. It is suggested that Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning theory of ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ provides a good theoretical representation of how authentic engagement in collective activities (in this case Intensive Interaction) is a necessary precursor to conceptual development and skill acquisition. ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ shows how a learner can gradually become part of a ‘community of social interactors’ once their emergent communicative and sociable behaviours are legitimised and responded to with Intensive Interaction. Initially the learning disabled person’s engagement in such a ‘community of social interactors’ might well be halting, tentative and exploratory, however, through repeated joint experience (in this case of Intensive Interaction), the collaboratively organised social activity develops greater levels of sophistication i.e. developmental progression takes place.

According to the author, the ‘Dual Aspect Process Model’ of Intensive Interaction is a reflective response to his own experiences of practicing and contemplating Intensive Interaction, and it is his hope that the model may help others to identify more clearly their main purpose in employing Intensive Interaction.


1. Terminology used associated with the use of Intensive Interaction by social care staff in semi-structured interviews during qualitative study using ‘grounded theory’ methodology (2005).

2. Terminology used associated with the use of Intensive Interaction by clinical psychologists in semi-structured interview during qualitative study using ‘grounded theory’ methodology (2006).


Lave, J. & Wenger E. (1991) ‘Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ in Bredo, E. ‘Reconstructing Educational Psychology’ in Murphy, P. (Ed) (1999) Learners, Learning & Assessment, London, Chapman Publishing.

Nind, M. & Hewett, D. (2nd ed. 2005) Access to Communication: Developing the basics of communication with people with severe learning difficulties through Intensive Interaction. David Fulton, London.

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