- How sensory stimulation helps cognitive development.
- Using sensory experiences to enrich the lives of children with PMLD.
- Helping to demonstrate learning.
- Creating your own sensory stories.
Over time our brain takes in information received from the senses and uses it to build neural pathways in our mind. As a baby, when we hear something and turn our head, see something and reach out for it, we are building our neural pathways. Repetition of these experiences makes our neural pathways stronger and forms connections between them, which results in a better understanding of the world.
Of course we gain a lot from being played with, from having people dangle toys in front of us and talk to us, but do not underestimate quite how much of our early development we do on our own.
Now consider the child who cannot turn their head when they hear something, whose physical disability means they are unable to reach out for the object they’ve seen. It can be easy for us to assume that someone with profound physical disabilities will have cognitive difficulties as well, and whilst it is certainly true that they often co-occur, I challenge readers to consider how much could be down to the lack of stimulation. If you are unable to access sensory stimulation for yourself you will be on the back foot when it comes to your cognitive development.
A learned response
Sadly researchers have also shown that some of the passivity observed in children with profound disabilities is not wholly a direct result of their disability, but in part a learned response to being unable to interact with the stimuli they perceive. They know there is a world out there but their experience tells them they can’t interact with it and so they turn inwards. In some cases this can result in children engaging in self-injurious behaviours as a way of seeking stimulation.
When supporting a child with profound disabilities it is vital that you provide them with as many opportunities as possible to have sensory experiences, both to support their cognitive development and to enrich their lives. There are many ways to provide such stimulation, from fabulous sensory rooms, to simple everyday tasks like washing your hands with scented soap. Sensory stories – stories that engage the senses – are another such tool.
If used in an organised and consistent manner, sensory stories can have multiple benefits.
Development of communication skills
Sensory stories can aid eye tracking (a precursor to reading), turn taking (communication is essentially a turn taking activity), concentration etc.
Expression of preferences
Children can demonstrate what they like or dislike through their reaction to the stimuli in the story.
Encountering stimuli within the safe story telling space can enable children to feel more confident in encountering similar stimuli in the big wide world, e.g. loud noises like dogs barking or strong smells like take away meals.
Improved tolerance of stimuli
This is especially significant for children who experience difficulties processing sensory stimulation, as can often happen for children with autism. By practising experiencing stimuli, children can improve their ability to tolerate those they find difficult. In the last issue of SEN Leader magazine Rosie Eachus explained how the structure of stories can build confidence; the same is true here. Children with autism especially will find the predictable nature of a repeated story reassuring.
Personalisation of care
Expressed preferences can be used to inform decisions taken on behalf of the child. For example, when purchasing a lampshade for a child’s bedroom you might choose a blue one because you’ve noticed they particularly liked looking at a blue light during a
Being able to demonstrate learning
It is not so long ago that society considered children with profound disabilities to be unable to learn and unworthy of being taught. People still find it hard to recognise learning when progress is made in very small steps. Anticipation is a wonderful way to demonstrate learning when working with sensory stories. One story will be repeated on many occasions. Imagine the story has a dog bark in it, following the line ‘The dog barked.’ On the first telling of the story the child may flinch when they hear the dog bark. They may continue to do this on subsequent tellings, but on the nth telling, suppose the child flinches as you say ‘The dog barked’ prior to hearing the actual bark. This flinch communicates to you that they know what happens next in the story.
Best of all, sensory stories are a lot of fun!
Accessing and creating sensory stories
Sensory stories, like other stories, are told about a range of subjects. Bagbooks sell ready-resourced stories about all sorts of things, from traditional tales such as Aladdin to religious stories such as the Christmas story.
Pamis’ sensitive story project created stories about things that a child with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) might find difficult, such as a trip to the dentist. I was personally inspired by a piece of research highlighting the importance of social contact for children with PMLD, to create stories that could be enjoyed equally by a child with PMLD and their siblings. I also wanted to create stories that would be affordable to most people.
I launched a Kickstarter project to enable me to do this and I am happy to report that the self-resourcing stories are available to purchase at www.bit.ly/sensestory
You can, of course, have a go at creating your own sensory story using the tools in the Toolkit. I encourage you to have fun exploring your senses with all your students.
The following Toolkit items are available to subscribers to SEN Leader Magazine Premium Plus.
- Worked example - Creating a sensory story
- Handout - Creating a sensory story
- Handout - Using sensory stories
About the author
Joanna Grace is a special educational needs and disabilities consultant who writes educational resources for organisations wishing to connect with individuals with special educational needs and disabilities. She recently ran the Sensory Story Project and provides training to people looking to share sensory stories successfully.
This article was first published in the January 2014 edition of SEN Leader magazine.