Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Show and tell

Sensory stories can be an important way to provide vital sensory stimulation for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities, as Joanna Grace explains:

Sensory stimulation is central to cognitive development, according to Ayer (1998). Many developmental milestones follow from establishing links between the senses, such as with hand-eye coordination. But individuals with profound disabilities are not able to access as wide a range of sensory stimulation for themselves. To master their senses individuals with profound disabilities need to be provided with stimulating experiences.

Flo Longhorn pioneered the use of sensory curricula for individuals with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) in the 1980s. Longhorn, citing research undertaken by neuroscientists, talked about the importance of repetition in the establishment of neural pathways. She also recognised the importance of the seven sensory systems in providing information to the brain [see below]. Sensory stories are one way of providing this vital sensory stimulatio

Seven senses
Most people can quickly name the five main senses – taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing – but the two that don’t immediately spring to mind are the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense.

Proprioception is your sense of where your body is in space. For example, put a cup on the table behind you, now facing away from the cup and without looking reach behind you and pick it up. You are able to do this because you know where your body is in space. You may have experienced a dip in your proprioception if you’ve ever woken up with the sensation of falling. This is an alarming experience. Individuals with impaired proprioception can feel this kind of alarm all the time, and may seek to discover where they are by rocking, tapping, jigging etc – anything that gives them tactile feedback as to where they are. Does this remind you of anyone you know?

Vestibulation has to do with your ability to balance and co-ordinate your limbs; it could be a dip in vestibulation that affects people with dyspraxia. It is your vestibular sense that tells you when a lift you are in is going down.

Sensory stories
Sensory stories provide rich sensory experiences as an accompaniment to clear auditory cues provided by the sentences of the story. Typically a sensory story will be composed of fewer than a dozen sentences. These sentences are uncomplicated in their construction: concise and clear. Each sentence is partnered with a rich sensory experience. Ideally, a story will cover all of the five famous senses. To tell a sensory story you simply say each sentence and then facilitate the associated experience. You may want to display the sentence, or sign it, for individuals with hearing difficulties. Do not be tempted to do too much though; the aim is to provide a clear sensory experience, not a confused one. When working with individuals assessed as operating at or below P level 3 [see box below] it is important to try and maintain consistency in your delivery.

P Levels
The P levels are used to assess children with special educational needs (SEN) who are achieving below National Curriculum Level 1. They provide eight incremental steps leading up to National Curriculum Level 1. And although there is much scope for improvement in the levels themselves they can be a useful tool in thinking about what achievement looks like for individuals with SEN and disabilities.

Here are a couple of examples, based on real lesson observations but the names and identifying details have been altered.

Jess and Peter
Jess, who has PMLD, attends a special school and is assessed as achieving at P level 2 in most curriculum areas. Peter is Jess’ teacher. Peter is telling Jess a sensory story about a boat at sea. “The wave splashed over the people on deck,” he says and mists Jess with a water spray. Jess flinches and grins as the water settles on her skin. Peter retells the story to Jess every morning before break and on each occasion he takes care to say the sentences in the same way and deliver the stimuli in the same manner. On the fifth telling of the story Peter says: “The wave splashed over the people on deck.” and Jess flinches before he mists her with the spray. Here, Jess has demonstrated that she remembers the story and knows what is going to happen next.

Ambika and Sue
Ambika has PMLD. She attends a special school and is assessed as achieving at P level 3 in most curriculum areas. Sue is Ambika’s teacher. Sue tells Ambika the same story. “A big wave splashed the people on deck,” says Sue and mists Ambika with the spray. On the second telling of the story Sue emphasises the word splashed and gives Ambika an extra squirt with the water spray. Ambika laughs; she enjoys the feel of the water. On the third telling of the story Sue mists Ambika with the water spray as she says “splashed” and at the end of the sentence. But on the fourth day nother member of staff shares the story with Ambika and isn’t sure if she should spray her so mists the air in front of Ambika instead. On the fifth day Sue gets distracted by a colleague while telling the story and Ambika sits passively in her chair.

Both students enjoyed the experience of sharing the story, and both benefited from experiencing a range of stimuli, but only Jess had the opportunity to demonstrate her learning and begin to communicate something back to her story teller.

Julie Taylor, who works for Scottish PMLD charity PAMIS, uses sensory stories to develop literacy skills in individuals with PMLD. She reported in 2006 on a young woman with PMLD being able to use a sensory story to take an active part in meetings of her circle of support group. This demonstrates how paying close attention to how individuals react to different stimuli can also help us to achieve personalisation in our services.

The importance of structure in sensory learning
Another common sensory aid used by teachers is the sensory room. These are fabulous places and many mainstream schools now have sensory areas within them. However there is a risk that ambitions for people with PMLD are not high enough. Simmons and Bayliss (2007) spoke of children being “parked” in sensory corners. Ayer (1998) questioned whether sensory areas are used as “dumping grounds” and even Longhorn, who first had a sensory room installed in her school in the early 1980s, now questions whether some rooms are being designed not with the needs of students in mind, but rather to sell as much equipment as possible. Sensory equipment can be expensive, but just because something is costly does not mean it is best practice.

Hussein (2010) pointed out what richly stimulating experiences gardens can be and Carpenter (1992) identified rich sensory experiences around the home, so it is possible to deliver high quality experiences for very little money. To this end, the Sensory Story Project recently set about creating high quality sensory stories that would be affordable to families. With a little discernment it is possible to identify rich sensory experiences that could be used to equip stories, for example, scented soap, black out curtains, and textured packaging. The Sensory Story Project has acquired enough backers to allow it to launch. Work is now underway to create high quality affordable sensory stories. It is anticipated that these stories will be available for purchase in November. You can see the progress of the project here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sensorystory/sensory-stories/posts or http://jo.element42.org

Are sensory stories just for individuals with PMLD?
In a word: no. If you stimulate your senses whilst learning more of your brain is engaged and you stand a better chance at remembering what you learn. Teaching practice magazine TESpro recently reported on multisensory learning slipping into mainstr eam practice. Sensory stories are very engaging and a lot of fun, they can be used with people of all ages and abilities, but there is another group of individuals for whom they may hold particular benefits: those with sensory processing issues. Some individuals may be more sensitive to sensory stimulation than others.

Sensory processing issues often co-occur with conditions such as autism. People who struggle with sensory processing may find everyday experiences overwhelming, in the way that some people would find fingers scraped down a chalk board unbearable. Hussein (2010) reported that students with autism can benefit from sensory stimulation, and anecdotally parents say that with repeated exposure their children can get used to sensory experiences and learn to control their reactions to them. Sensory stories encompassing graded experiences, for example, a story in which a gloopy substance gets progressively stickier, can be used as a fun way of encouraging children to brave experiences they wouldn’t feel comfortable meeting in the real world. Sensory stories can also be used to introduce children to stimuli that they may encounter in life – so, for example, a story could include the smell of chlorine and the sound of splashing to prepare a child for a trip to the swimming pool – similar to the use of social stories.


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