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Helping people with learning disabilities to be heard

A technique developed by a Southampton academic has radically challenged approaches to working with people with severe learning disabilities. The Intensive Interaction technique has improved the quality of life for huge numbers of people and laid the foundations for a body of research that continues to generate impact today.

Research challenge

Communicating with people who have severe and complex learning disabilities or autism can be extremely challenging and many remain difficult to reach and socially isolated. Historically it had always been thought that it was impossible to teach people who displayed challenging behaviour so all efforts went into modifying the behaviour. However, Professor Melanie Nind of Southampton Education School, and her former colleague Dr Dave Hewett, now Director of the Intensive Interaction Institute, believed that extreme behaviour was an understandable reaction to circumstances and that it was important to begin to engage with people who otherwise remained socially isolated.


There are around 38,000 school-aged children in England with severe/profound and multiple learning difficulties. Many teachers struggle to find teaching approaches and curricula to facilitate the social and communication development of these children.

Similarly, adults in the UK and around the world whose behaviour has interfered with them developing good relationships have been vulnerable to harsh institutional and medical intervention. Intensive Interaction offers practical solutions that are based on strong theoretical and empirical foundations.

Our solution

Melanie and Dave, with colleagues at Harperbury Hospital School, developed the approach of Intensive Interaction that teaches fundamental communication skills to children and adults with severe learning difficulties or autism. It is based on the way young children learn early communication skills from their parents and works by progressively developing responsive, mutually enjoyable interaction sequences that are frequently repeated and reflected upon. By using the Intensive Interaction techniques and increasing the ability of people with learning disabilities/autism and their communication partners to communicate and relate, they and their families can experience better and more fulfilled lives.

What was the impact?

Intensive Interaction has already been widely adopted throughout the UK and around the world and has been influential at national policy level. It is included in national curriculum guidance (having been endorsed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) and the government’s strategy for people with learning disabilities Valuing People Now. It is used across education, psychology, social care, and speech and occupational therapy, and is promoted by voluntary organisations.

The approach is also having an impact internationally. Research on the emotional well-being benefits of Intensive Interaction is being applied in Eastern European orphanages in Montenegro and Romania. It is also being increasingly used in Greece, has been widely implemented in Australia and New Zealand, and is beginning to be incorporated into work in Thailand. In Canada Intensive Interaction is used in psychiatric clinical practice to promote mental health in people with intellectual disabilities.

Melanie is continuing to build on this work and her recent research on mental health, enabling access, and positive risk-taking is providing current and new practitioners of Intensive Interaction with new data and thinking to inform their practice and policy. She has since been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant and has been exploring quality in doing research inclusively with people with learning disabilities.

Helping people with learning disabilities to be heard
Helping people

Related Staff Member

With colleagues at Harperbury Hospital School, we developed the approach of Intensive Interaction that teaches fundamental communication skills to children and adults with severe learning difficulties or autism.

Melanie Nind - Professor in Education
Intensive Interaction websites:

Intensive Interaction Institute

Leeds NHS Trust

Oxfordshire psychology services

Us in a Bus voluntary organisaiton

Intensive Interaction Down Under

Examples of practitioner-oriented literature promoting/demonstrating use of this research

Firth, G. (2009) A dual aspect model of Intensive Interaction, British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 37(1):43-49; Firth, G. & Barber, M. (2010) Using Intensive Interaction with a Person with a Person with a Social or Communicative Impairment (Jessica Kinglsey). (Build on the whole body of research on Intensive Interaction including

Jones, K. & Howley, M. (2010) An investigation into an interaction programme for children on the autism spectrum: outcomes for children, perceptions of schools and a model for training, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 10(2):115-123.

Fergusson, A. (2012) Back to the future: Moving forward with practitioner research. In: P. Jones, T. Whitehurst & J. Egerton (eds) Creating Meaningful Inquiry in Inclusive Classrooms: Practitioners stories of research. Abingdon: Routledge. (Cites Intensive Interaction as ‘an internationally accepted way of working to value and promote the communicative exchange of people with learning disabilities’.)

Examples of policy/national usage

Dept of Health (2009) Valuing People Now: Making it Happen for Everyone (p.38)

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2009) General Guidance

Literature demonstrating application to new audiences/contexts and novice practitioners and international uptake:

Hart, P. (2006) Using imitation with congenitally deafblind adults: Establishing meaningful communication partnerships, Infant & Child Development, 15: 263-74.

Zeedyk, S., Caldwell, P., & Davies, C. E. (2009) Fostering social engagement in Romanian children with communicative impairments: the experiences of newly trained practitioners of Intensive Interaction, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37: 186-96.

Arthur-Kelly, M., Foreman, P., Bennett, D. & Pascoe, S. (2008) Interaction, inclusion and students with profound and multiple disabilities: towards an agenda for research and practice, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 8(3):161-66. (Authors writing from Australian perspective cite)

Key Publications

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