Phoebe Caldwell

Dr Caldwell has written a poem on her experience of receiving an honorary degree.

Doctor of Science Phoebe Caldwell

Thursday 21 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Kelley Johnson

Madam Chancellor,

Virginia Woolf once said of women:

‘I thought how unpleasant it was to be locked out: and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.’ (Virginia Woolf, 1929) 

Woolf was speaking of women but her words are even more relevant to the groups of people with whom Phoebe Caldwell, of whom more later, has worked and about whom she has written. 

Phoebe Caldwell is receiving an honorary doctor of science for her significant   contribution to our knowledge of people labelled as autistic or as having profound learning disabilities and for the contribution that she has made in reaching out to this group of people in her practice.  Phoebe has used her talents as a poet, writer, artist and builder to create ways of reaching people who are frequently excluded from our community.

What is it like to be so overwhelmed by sound and vision or touch that it is unbearable to experience the world around us?  What is it like to not have a spoken language with which to communicate our wishes and fears?  What is it like to withdraw from the external world entirely into an inner one where only a repeated action or holding onto an object has meaning and security?  It is difficult for the rest of us to know.  Consequently many of these people live in isolation from other human contact. However Phoebe has sought not only to try and understand but to change the lives of people in this situation. Her aim has been to find ways of conversing which are meaningful and interesting to both parties and which allow a person in this situation to engage with others in meaningful and relevant ways to them.

Inspired by Gerant Ephraim, a clinical psychologist, Phoebe developed, practised and documented a way of being with people in these groups.  Called intensive interaction, it involves careful observation of a person to understand their language, sensitive listening to them and a reaching out to the person by using their forms of communication, whether these are sounds or movements or repeated actions.  This is not imitation of the person’s behaviour but rather the beginning of an often non verbal conversation in which the individual, who is locked into their own world, is able to engage with someone else.

Phoebe’s 8 books and her training films document this way of working with people and are filled with accounts of the individuals with whom she has worked.   They also provide a theoretical rationale for intensive interaction. Her own words give some idea of the transformative nature of intensive interaction:

Ron is non verbal but extremely vocal.  He has come with his parents to a training day on communication, since he has been excluded from a number of schools that cannot cope with his behaviour.  He is sitting at the back of the hall in a wheelchair.  The situation is not a good one for him because he does not care for contact with people and here he is in a hall with about 30 parents.  He wears his baseball cap pulled firmly down over his eyes, hiding behind it and making loud noises to the extent that it is becoming difficult to make myself heard….. I begin to respond.  Each time he makes a sound I answer with a related sound or rhyme. Almost at once Ron starts to listen and our reciprocal interaction becomes a conversation. He raises his head- and the peak of his cap so that he can attend more fully…he becomes more interested and pushes the peak round to the side and then to the front so that he can see better.  His face is gleeful.  Out of his sensory chaos, here is something which has meaning for him and to which he can respond.  A channel has been opened for us to talk to each other – and it is clear he has a lot to say. (Caldwell, 2007)

Phoebe did not originally see her career in terms of working with people with disabilities. She came from an academic family in which her father was Vice Chancellor at London University and she obtained a first class degree in Botany from UCL.  Preparation for a PhD was interrupted by marriage and the establishment of a family.  It was by this step that one of her links with the University of Bristol was established.  Her husband Peter became Professor of Physiology at this university and for many years she lived and worked in the Bristol area.  

Phoebe began her work with people with autism as an untrained occupational therapy assistant with people who were then living in long stay institutions in the Bristol area.  Her accounts of this work are moving and sometimes very funny.   They reveal her capacity to both work sensitively with people and to challenge existing practices.  In her first position Phoebe found herself confined to a dirty corridor with a group of highly anxious men who had little to do.   She wanted to reduce the stress levels for them and to engage in fun activities.  With them she washed down the corridor and painted the walls with collages and murals which reminded them of their homes.  The walls were soon covered with pictures including a green grocer shop and a pub.  She rejected the uniform she was expected to wear and on being forced to continue to wear it, she covered it in paint as she transformed the corridor.  Her repeated defiance led to a final capitulation by the institutional authorities: at least in the matter of dress.

Phoebe then worked in a number of institutions in the Bristol area where her work was evaluated by a University of Bristol PhD student.  As a result of this and with support from the Mental Health Foundation the University of Bristol sponsored the making of a training film of her work with men with challenging behaviour.  This was used to train medical students at the university and became a Panorama programme. 

This brought her into contact with Professor Oliver Russell at the University who supported her in an application to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which provided her with funding to teach her methods to therapists and teachers all over England and Wales.    The value of this teaching was acknowledged in an extension of the Rowntree grant for a further three years.  Since then Phoebe has worked as an independent therapist, trainer and writer.  She has chosen not to work within an academic setting but continues to work with people from the Orkneys to Cornwall, responding to calls from parents, teachers and service providers for assistance in reaching people who are locked into their own worlds.  And she has continued to write.   Over the past six years she has worked with more than 1000 people, sometimes only once, sometimes more continuously.  When I asked her how she feels about the people with whom she has worked she commented:

            They curl up in my heart and I take them with me.

In June I spent a weekend with Phoebe, learning about her work, sharing stories and a great deal of laughter.   I took away from that weekend not only an increase in my knowledge about how she works but with much more.  I came away with profound respect for her integrity, for her honesty in her scholarship, for her capacity to recognize our common humanity and for her recognition of the dignity and worth of the people with whom she works and for her wisdom.

Phoebe’s work has been recognized both nationally and internationally through her direct work with people, through the training she has offered to practitioners and through her writing.    Most recently she was awarded the Times Sternberg Prize which recognizes the contribution made by older people who have channelled their energy and wisdom into a cause that changes the lives of those around them.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Phoebe Caldwell as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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