When people use the phrase, ‘put yourself in their shoes,’ we would all like to say we try, but very few of us have the patience, skill and understanding to actually do it. One of Concept Training’s elite, Autism expert Phoebe Caldwell, is one of those extraordinary people who can position herself in the world of another and use this invaluable skill to help them. In fact, on many occasions Phoebe’s knowledge and skills have significantly changed people’s lives. While others are often confused and frustrated by a loved one or patient’s actions, Phoebe works to break through the barriers of the autistic spectrum and help autistic people build a bridge to the world around them.
At 76, Phoebe recently won The Times Sternberg Award for her work to improve the outlook for people with severe autism. The award celebrates the achievements of people aged 70 or over who have done most for society and good causes in their older age. With an increasing number of cases of autism being recognised, Phoebe uses a method called Intensive Interaction to reach people. Providing training courses run by Concept Training, she is keen to teach others how to combat the isolation which stems from autism. Concept Training is a leading national and international training provider that organises a variety of special needs centred training, in partnership with Edge Hill University.
Intensive Interaction is a technique that uses the non-verbal or semi-verbal adult or child’s individual body language to communicate with them. It is not just what they do, but how they do it, that is important. Although interventions may start with imitation, they progress to building up conversations through answering and response. Since their brain is now presented with signals that it recognises easily without having to go through a distorted processing system, their stress levels are reduced and their brain can function more effectively. As communication improves, the distressed behaviour tends to decrease. This approach helps sufferers and their families to understand each other, and the disorder, while improving everyday life.
Phoebe explains, ‘In our brains we have mirror neurons which gives the body a motor response to what it recognises. For example, when you yawn, people around you get a sensation which is similar. Another example is when you spend time with someone with depression; you tend to change your mood to their level. We get over a million inputs per second into the brain and we filter out the unnecessary, but autistic people’s brains can’t cope with this and they become distressed by the resulting sensory overload. The brain also finds it difficult to switch off, so a sound may continue in the brain long after its source has discontinued.’
Most of the people living with autism have great difficulty translating the sounds and surroundings around them and this causes them to be frightened, disturbed and it may even cause physical pain. Phoebe is keen to stress that the Intensive Interaction method is not ‘simply copying’, but responding to ensure their senses don’t get overloaded. Making conversation out of body language, something familiar to the individual, allows autistic people to express themselves and communicate with others.
Using intensive interaction, Phoebe reaches the unreachable. Instead of trying to force people with autism into ‘our’ world, she works through what speaks to the brain and gets in touch using familiar body language and senses. Describing the condition, Phoebe says, ‘If you have autism, the brain is like a kaleidoscope where the pattern never settles. I use body language to tune into people on the spectrum. It’s easy to learn.’ With one child in 97 born on the autistic spectrum, many of us will know someone affected by the condition. Phoebe is keen for people to know that this technique can and does work. She has helped people within a few hours of meeting them, whereas those around them have got nowhere in years.
A couple from Wales invited Phoebe into their home in the hope of helping their son Steven. Steven was born with severe learning disability, epilepsy and autism. As an adult he had never developed speech. Steven’s mother was thrilled by the difference Phoebe made. ‘The two days Phoebe spent with us as a family and with Steven’s care staff proved to be what I can only describe as ‘amazing’. We were taught to understand the sounds and gestures that Steven makes and shown how to respond to them. Over the last few weeks, Steven has progressed and continues to be more vocal each day.’
Phoebe graduated as a biologist and then went to work in a learning disability hospital. With 35 years of experience in this field, she received a Rowntree Fellowship and studied different approaches for working with learning disabilities. She was strongly influenced by the late Geraint Ephraim, a psychologist at Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. Ephriam was Phoebe’s supervisor for four years and he introduced Intensive Interaction in the 1980s. Phoebe says, ‘From him I learned to look at what my conversation partner was doing and, particularly, how they were doing it. Is he calm, or getting upset? I learnt to use his or her activity as a language out of which to build affective and empathetic conversations that tuned into how he or she was feeling, promoting emotional engagement.’ Author of eight books, Phoebe has made training DVDs on helping those with severe learning disabilities, addressed conferences, initiated research and worked with a large number of parents and professionals.