Guest Post: Helen Duff

“In thinking about the feeling of mindfulness we recognise a stillness or a steadiness to the being. Someone whose attention is on the present – but that attention is jumping around – does not feel this stillness. In providing a sensory object that entrances we give someone the opportunity to both be in the moment and to feel that stillness and steadiness we associate with mindful practice. We called this sensory mindfulness sensory-being”

Last Thursday, myself and Hannah Pillai from the AAC Learning Team attended The Sensory Projects’ Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop, led by pioneer and all round powerhouse, Joanna Grace. In a room filled to bursting with neon, squidgy, spiky objects (all sourced from pound stores and local scrap shops, Jo was quick to reassure us!) we learned how to make stories that engaged on several sensory levels; exploring the myriad ways in which narrative helps create, craft and communicate ones sense of self.

From a young age, we hear stories that help us to understand who we are. Family regale us with childish slip ups that, several decades later, still raise a smile. Photos spark memories of a scrap of soft muslin we couldn’t leave the house without, and our excitement at the prospect of new tea towels suddenly makes sense! Bodies bare scars that have faded beyond recognition, the once livid pain sucked away by time, leaving only the understanding that you were as foolhardy and ambitious in your early years (in my case, trying to break into a model railway, chin first) as you remain to this day.

Without these stories, passed on by friends and family, reinforced by visual queues, triggered by sounds, smells, tastes and textures, we miss out on building blocks that are fundamental to forming a coherent identity. With the Sensory Beings project, Jo hopes to give children with autism and / or profound and multiple learning difficulties, the opportunity to engage with narratives that appeal to the full spectrum of our senses (Jo expands the standard 5 to include our vestibular system and proprioception), seeing themselves at the centre of the story and building an increased level of engagement through repetition and recognition.

The neon, squidgy, spiky objects were key to understanding the different ways we might tell a story. Neurotypical people place a great emphasis on speech and the written word as our primary means of communication. By waking up our full sensory realm, Jo opened our eyes – and more importantly, ears, noses, fingers and tongues – to the multiple ways we communicate meaning. After a fascinating morning unpacking what makes an engaging sensory story, hearing anecdotes from Jo’s rich experience in the field, and learning first hand how the addition of movement to a song or story supports memory, we were hit by the inevitable post lunch slump. What better way to tackle the afternoon dip than by getting up on our feet, sniffing the floorboards, running our palms over windowsills, and, for the more adventurous amongst us, sticking our tongues into soap bubbles? By engaging the full spectrum of our senses, we observed how our attention intensified. Adding an element of story in here – for example, brushing the skin of your arm with a coarse brush as you describe walking through a forest thick with branches, only enhanced your experience of the narrative.

The advantages of engaging a student’s concentration are numerous. By targeting one sense, in the example given with the brush above, proprioception, you might calm the participant’s nervous system. This in turn allows other senses, perhaps the visual or auditory faculties, to increase in receptivity. Jo highlighted how often, children who’ve experienced trauma or early age medical intervention, struggle to ‘identify their edges’. Hence why anchoring them in the body with repetitive, gently stimulating touch, helps to ground their other senses, too. Of course the level of touch is completely individual to each participant; what might be a relaxing pressure to one person, could be painfully irritating to another. Being reminded of this variation felt strangely freeing, as I realised that finding these things out is an endless process of discovery and discussion!

On another level, we learned how sensory stories can support identity building for participants who particularly resonate with one sense. Hearing a story that takes you to the top of a mountain, with the clear, cold air bought to life by a sniff of a fresh mint shower gel, might help you understand how much you like bright, zesty smells. This allows you to start building your own sensory box or bag, gradually developing a sense of your favourite things and facilitating the means by which you can communicate your preferences to new people. The capacity to indicate what you do and don’t like is essential when it comes to personal expression and freedom of choice. Helping students to tell stories allows them to self advocate later in life, actively shaping their care.

It’s all about finding out what works best for each participant, repeating the story in exactly the same way each time, allowing your audience to get comfortable, build an awareness of what’s happening, and, progressively, anticipate what’s going to happen next. I welcomed the clarity of Jo’s method, as she stressed the importance of consistency, combining a no-pressure approach that sets clear boundaries but doesn’t get flustered when / if these instructions aren’t followed. More details on how to share a sensory story depending on the different needs of your participant can be found in this free to download resource on Jo’s website . It was encouraging for me to hear that my instinctive, open, go with the flow attitude was spot on. At the same time, there was a huge amount for me to reflect on, as my residency as Family Inclusion Associate Artist at AAC will only allow me to conduct two workshops, and building a consistent approach, as well as a continuous relationship with the participants, will be impossible within those parameters. Still, I am excited to pass on my learning to the learning team at AAC, exploring how everything I absorbed at the Storytelling Workshop can support their work going forwards. I know for certain that it will continue to inform the way I approach telling stories, and engaging the senses, in my own work. Whether that be performing a solo show, sharing an anecdote with a friend, or reliving a memory about soft muslin, the sensory realm available to me as a storyteller is far wider than I ever realised.

 

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