Guest Blog: Why Multi Sensory Approaches are so important for Children with Special Educational Needs

Guest Blog by Ellie Griffiths – Winston Churchill Fellow 2016 (researching new approaches to making theatre for neurodiverse audiences)

In my work as a Theatre Artist I am always striving to create moments of connection between audience and performers. For me theatre is about bringing everyone into the present, to experience something together as a group, and in another way, leaving room for totally personal responses. I like theatre that makes space for all these different types of honest responses…where you are not stuck in your seat, having to be quiet and passive until the show finishes.

It wasn’t until I started working for Oily Cart Theatre Company:, as a regular performer, and now director, that I discovered just how intense and intimate those moments of connection could be…and how rich and spontaneous a piece of theatre is if you genuinely leave room for and celebrate all different types of responses. Oily Cart create specialised theatre for young people with complex needs. They have been crafting, and in many ways pioneered this work, for over thirty years. Their approach is totally multi sensory – every performance can be experienced through all your senses, not just by watching or listening, like most theatre shows. Their work has included performances on trampolines, immersive environments, and even the audience flying up in the air!

As I move forward to start making theatre in Scotland for audiences with all different types of needs; autism, complex disabilities and later stage dementia, the biggest lesson I’m bringing with me, is how powerful a multi sensory approach can be, in opening up pathways of connection with some individuals who might seem almost impossible to reach, or to engage creatively in a way that’s meaningful.

What is so important about multi sensory work is that it evens the playing field; everyone can enjoy a beautiful smell, an interesting texture, a gorgeous singing voice, or a harp being played. Part of the reason a sensory practice is so empowering for young people who relate to the world differently, is that they often have something to teach us about how to experience these moments: a huge part of the reason I love working with people labelled as having autism or profound and multiple learning difficulties (or PMLD), is that they have taught me to slow down, stop rushing from one thing to another, and shown me how to enjoy, in a very pure way, the vibration of a live instrument through the floor; or the feeling of a breeze on my face from a fan; or an interesting shadow cast on the carpet. In a world where we are constantly bombarded and are often multi tasking and rushing around – it is important for our wellbeing to sometimes be reminded to be present, stop our inner monologue, and enjoy ‘simple’ things. In this way, It’s very linked to the practice of mindfulness, And yet many of the audience I work with seem to do this totally naturally.

My favourite memories of making multi sensory theatre are of watching one of our audience members respond in a totally uninhibited way to a sensory moment. I have been really moved watching a young man on the autistic spectrum dancing to some live percussion music in an un-self conscious way during a performance. I was amazed and touched by how pure his response was, and wondered if I had, or would ever, dance so freely. I began to dance with him as best I could and he started laughing, shouting out in joy. I was smiling from ear to ear and we were giggling and laughing, having such a great time. I think he sensed that he had inspired my movements and that I was joining his game. It was a great moment of connection, and really honest because both of us got something from it and he was in control, rather than my expectations of him leading the way. In other parts of my life, the closest I have got to this type of ecstatic movement is at a music festival or with close friends dancing round the living room! These are some my happiest moments, when I’ve felt really free.

Working in this way allows a genuine exchange, rather than it being about ‘doing nice sensory things for the poor disabled children’. It seems to me that multi sensory work is the most naturally accessible form. By working in this way you can include and empower young people with even the most profound disabilities, as articulated beautifully in this video by practitioner Joanna Grace:

The happy side effect is that when you stop talking, and directing a child’s experience, and focus instead on enjoying a sensory experience with them, you end up listening. To truly listen, with your whole body to someone or something, is very rare. When people are listened to they are empowered. Amazing ‘results’ can happen, a whole atmosphere or relationship can change, as exemplified here by intensive interaction expert Phoebe Caldwell:

To stop relying on talking, and to leave room for silence, and authentic responses, means to be with someone, rather than to do to, or for them. This has dignity, and gives the young person the respect they deserve and the time and space they need. (Some research has shown it can take someone labelled as having PMLD up to three minutes to show a response to a sensory activity). If you rush through, you miss moments where someone is trying to communicate with you in their language; be it vocalisation, eye contact, or jus through their breath patterns.

Offering different ways into an experience helps everyone; different types of learners, different types of minds, not just people with disabilities. I am ‘neurotypical’ but I am an experiential learner, I prefer being physically involved. I actively seek out types of performances that are more of an experience than an intellectual exercise. In fact there are many contemporary performances that are implicitly multi sensory, without any specific focus on inclusivity: for example Rain Room, by Random International:, which had four hour queues to get in by the end of it’s Barbican run, and HUG, by Verity Standen: Both are amazing pieces of performance, viewed as ‘high art’ and enjoyed by neurotypical audiences internationally. Yet there is nothing in there that isn’t artistically accessible. Both of these pieces were richly poetic, often moving their audience to tears: this is the creative potential of multi sensory work, which is still, arguably not exploited enough for different types of audiences.

In a sensory world, everyone can be understood in spite of difference: I’d like conclude with a quote from a parent that came to see an Oily Cart show I was part of:

“Finley’s disability often means that he is always being asked to conform orwork hard to fit into a social norm that is not suited to him and so he struggles.But as soon as we walked into the (theatre) space, Finley’s differences wereembraced and even celebrated. I felt like we were in a bubble of Finley’sworld and it was just magical. It was a stark contrast to the harsh worldoutside. I found the whole experience very emotional to watch and the OilyCart Company have reminded me how wonderful my son is and we should beencouraging people to accept his differences rather than make him ‘fit in’.”Parent, JW3 venue June 2015)

Upfront Performance Network – ‘to connect, support and inspire practitioners and artists working creatively with individuals with learning disabilities and complex needs.’
Join the conversation for links to research, resources and professional advice: closed facebook group ‘Upfront Performance Network’ and follow our blog:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s