Amis doesn’t want to join in. He circles the room, sprinting as fast as he can whenever anyone comes close or offers and invitation to join in. This is day three of a five day project with children at Ashmount Special School part of a Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded project called Unlocking the World by Attenborough Arts Centre. Amis is on the autistic spectrum, his Individual Education Plan says that interaction is difficult for him. Today I start with some sensory stories – we’re on a boat, we’re out at sea, rocking sliding, rolling. None of it appeals to Amis who shows his indifference to it by staying at the edges of the room.
But then something changes. The teacher and LSA’s in the room notice a shift in the atmosphere. I have brought out enormous garden tubs, each one stuffed full of sponges of different colours and textures. Amis walks over, has a look and walks away. I move the buckets into the middle of the room, Amis comes back, has another look and then walks away. I move the buckets elsewhere, perhaps subconsciously knowing that Amis is at least vaguely interested in the offer of a tub of sponge. Emma, his teacher, suddenly declares “he’s following you Liz” and I notice that this time, as I put the sponges down Amis is right behind me. This time he steps into the tub of sponges and then steps out. I move the buckets again, and Amis follows, stepping in and out 4 or 5 times. On the last time I step in also and he looks at me, steps out and then retreats away.
I repeat the action and so does Amis – this time I sit in the sponges, and so does Amis. The tub is full of yellow sponges. I tip and tilt the tub with Amis inside, and he smiles. I feel a rush like rollercoaster, the exhilaration of connecting with a child who has autism. I tip him out, and he rolls out along the floor with about 40 sponges. Then he picked them up meticulously and puts them back into the tub and gets back in. I offer him different coloured sponges but he’s not having any of it, each blue or pink sponge that is put into the tub is rejected. He carefully sorts and chooses until only yellow ones remain. We squash, we roll, we slide, a conversation made up of our hands, feet and faces. Some of it is my idea, some of it is Amis’. We’re journeying together, making a new experience, creating it afresh, it’s a collaboration.
I pull a sheet of white lycra over our heads and again Amis smiles. His feet are now sticking out of the bucket straight into the air. I waft cool air onto us both and pull the lycra over and around us. Amis is very calm, very content and smiles a lot. Staff are busy writing on post it notes… a number of staff write the same observation about Amis and then realise that they have both clocked the same thing. Everyone feels boosted and confidence rises.
I look around the room, it is a carnage of sponges, lycra, brightly coloured plastic tubs and bodies pulling, rolling, hiding, sharing, communicating. The session ends 25 minutes later and a teacher writes “Amis has been 100% engaged; initiating, copying in the sponge tub play. Job satisfaction? A big fat yes….