The challenges of rehabilitating any traumatised child, including a Feral Child, are enormous. The child might have congenital (born-with) disabilities. They may well have acquired other disabilities, or behavioural, emotional and mental disorders because of the experiences they’ve survived.
It is absolutely false to think that a few months of love and care, good food and clean clothes will sort them out. It won’t.
Like the children who were adopted from the terrible conditions of East European orphanages in the 1990s, carers for deprived, neglected, damaged children faced the daunting task of helping these children regain as much function as possible. But as many specialists, parents and carers will attest, some of these children are lost to us, incapable of loving, making eye contact, speaking or laughing. Because of their treatment, they are incapable of showing interest in the world, in people, in themselves.
Intensive Interaction is the system of teaching communication fundamentals to children and adults who are ‘pre-speech’ – at a level of communication development that doesn’t yet (or perhaps never will) include speech. These are often people with severe and complex learning disabilities, but intensive interaction is also used for people with disabilities affecting more than one sense (sight and hearing, for example) , or people with autism.
Feral Children are socially isolated, and it’s likely that they either have congenital disabilities or acquired disabilities because of the experiences they endure.
Much like children living in neglect in orphanages, they have little positive stimulation and might not have any understanding or interest in connecting or communicating with others.
The challenge is, in part, how to reach out to these children now that they are in circumstances where they do have people who want to communicate.
Most children learn these basic building blocks of communication with their mothers or other loving caregivers. When a baby vocalises or moves or looks, their caregiver acknowledges it with a rhythm and turn-taking pattern that is the same as an intense conversation.
Mum: ‘ooh, ga!’
Mum: ‘ga ga ga!’
Baby: ‘Ga ga!’
And so on…
Eye contact, turn taking, sharing attention with people and things, facial expressions – these are things that most of us take for granted. It feels instinctive to look at people’s faces, to make appropriate eye contact, to engage in the back-and-forth of conversation.
But these kids haven’t necessarily had positive experiences with others, and they might not have the capacity to fully understand what’s going on around them. Self comforting, repetitive behaviours are the familiar and comprehensible ways they stimulate themselves. There isn’t space or need for a partner. So intensive interaction, where a ‘teacher-person’ responds to something that the ‘learner-person’ is doing, or a noise they’re making, is the way to gain access to their world in a way that makes sense to them and isn’t overwhelming.
You’ll see in the film in Fiji, Elizabeth and Sujit engage in a simple, and spontaneous game where they use car keys as an item to pass back and forth. Elizabeth has had training in Intensive Interaction, but is clearly a naturally very empathetic and sensitive person. Sujit initiated the interaction by gesturing for the bag, then Elizabeth offered the keys; then they begin a quick burst of passing the keys back and forward. Each exchange is acknowledged with delight. Timing and pace varies, even though the action remains the same. Clearly Sujit enjoys the simple game, with smiles and quick glances at Elizabeth’s and my face.
What an extraordinary thing – to develop meaningful, playful exchanges with someone who has been isolated, socially and mentally, for so long. Sujit may never speak, but exchanges like this develop the basic building blocks of communication that all humans, in all cultures, employ to make sense of each other and make sense of the world.
Seeing that interaction brought tears to my eyes. It was incredible.
**other information to follow**