Hands up who’s felt challenged this last year or so? I certainly have and if I were to put my challenges from the last 18 months in order, there are two that would take joint first place.
Challenge Number 1 came along towards the end of 2019 when I embarked upon a residency at Fairview, a special school in Perth. Although I’ve delivered many children’s workshops exploring various aspects of illustration, I’d never experienced working in an Additional Support Needs (ASN) environment.
Halfway through my residency at Fairview COVID-19 arrived very unexpectedly, along with the resulting lockdown. In the wake of these events, I was confronted with Challenge Number 2; how to translate my events into an ASN-friendly online format. Although I was unable to continue with my work at Fairview (I really hope to complete the residency as soon as it’s safe to do so), I have gone on to do some online, ASN-friendly events with sensory storyteller, Ailie Finlay.
In confronting these two challenges I’ve been on a very steep learning curve. I feel that there’s a lot for me still to disentangle, process and digest so I’ll share some initial observations and ideas from my limited experience of working both face-to-face and online with an ASN audience.
Part 1 – My residency at Fairview School
Embracing jiggly nerves
I was very excited at the prospect of embarking on my residency at Fairview though I must admit to a healthy dose of trepidation too. I say ‘healthy’ as I believe that feeling a bit nervous is a positive sign, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm. It indicates that you’re doing something fresh, moving into a new area of self-development and that you care about the outcomes.
Expressing illustration as a sensory experience
My main focus was adapting my workshop practice to have a more sensory approach, thereby making it more engaging for children with ASN. My residency at Fairview, which was funded by the Scottish Book Trust, included mentoring from Ailie Finlay. As an illustrator, I’m obviously a very visual person however through working with Ailie, I discovered new ways of storytelling which included touch, sound and even smell!.
If I’m honest, I hadn’t appreciated quite how sensory children with ASN can be and I found the process of adapting my practice to be very playful and liberating. I quickly learned that children with ASN have both widely varying and very individual needs. For example, a child with visual impairments will react very differently to particular stimuli compared with a child who is on the autism spectrum. For me, this became the real crux of my challenge; taking each child’s individual needs into account while also ensuring that no-one was left out.
Creating and valuing intimacy
Exploring character and story through the senses is a delightfully intimate experience and often involves reading your audience reactions at a micro-level of detail. If a child is non-verbal, their responses can sometimes be so subtle and fleeting; the tiniest flickering of a smile or the slightest raising of eyebrows. What may seem like a tiny or even insignificant response from a child who will normally not respond to certain stimuli may well be regarded as a big breakthrough to teachers and carers.
In an ASN environment you’ll quite possibly find that you rely a lot upon teachers and carers who know the children very well and can translate their reactions for you. Be prepared to reevaluate how you measure the success of your work!
Integrating your work with school goals
Teachers and carers may be encouraging children to develop particular life skills, e.g. to be more open-minded/expand their horizons (by trying new activities outside of their comfort zone), be more confident (interacting with a new people) or becoming better at taking turns. Schools may look to you to help reinforce some of these more long term aspirations for the children through your work. For example, a group activity may also be an opportunity to participate in sharing (materials, paints, etc.).
Working without a masterplan
I quickly learned that when working with an ASN class, there is often no clear path for you to follow which will take you neatly from A to Z. You’re frequently on a trail built upon trial and error, working out what may engage the attention of each child before you decide what activity to move onto next. It’s worth remembering that the outcome may not be what you had envisaged, in which case you may have to adapt or even ditch an idea if it fails to engage.
Part 2 – My online work with Ailie Finlay
Consider the format of your online event or project
Doing practical art and craft activities within an ASN environment is a very hands-on experience which focuses on process rather than outcome. Assessing the success of an activity involves close observation and to date I have not yet worked out a way of facilitating or translating this to an online experience. This is one reason why I have been unable to continue with my Fairview residency during lockdown.
Having said that, I think that it is possible to successfully craft events which involve elements of sensory storytelling and present parents/carers with ideas for art and craft activities that they can do together afterwards. These kinds of events often form part of a book festival programme and are designed to be fun and relaxing for both child and parent/carer. Special schools are often working with their pupils to develop life skills and therefore, activities that are fun but also gently challenging for pupils are often popular.
With the careful selection of household objects as sensory props, storytelling is possibly easier to translate into an online format and it’s great for contextualising and complementing any follow-up art or craft activity.
Creating energy online
There’s no denying the obvious lack of intimacy and energy when doing any online event or workshop, especially in those aimed at an ASN audience. You have to look for ways to fill this gap.
Ailie and I found that working as a double-act helped hugely as we were able to take turns at playing the part of the audience. This not only gives parents and carers a heads-up as to when they should encourage a response from their child, but it also helped us to maintain an upbeat energy throughout the event, bouncing off each others reactions rather than the computer screen.
You can also create breaks and vary pace by introducing a toy as a co-host. Toys create a welcoming atmosphere and also inject a sense of playfulness. We used Wilf the Teddy Bear to act as a go between, delivering props back and forth between our houses and obviously defying all the lockdown rules! Wilf was a very helpful character but you could equally introduce a bit of naughtiness with your toy; a character that causes a bit of chaos for the adults and fun entertainment for the children.
Ensure art and craft activities are accessible
Remember that events are online mainly because we are in a lockdown. This means that a number of people are confined to their homes and parents of children with ASN may be feeling a bit frazzled at the moment. It’s therefore important to ensure that your sensory story and art/craft activity uses simple, everyday, household props and materials. If you can, let the audience know in advance what they will need. Perhaps offer a couple of different art/craft activities and even better, suggestions of how they can be adapted and developed into further activities and projects.
Contributing towards making children with ASN more visible
Children with ASN very rarely see themselves portrayed in illustrations. As an illustrator you can contribute towards changing this apparent invisibility by including children with ASN in your work. Where possible use these images to advertise your online, ASN-friendly events or within the event itself, thereby creating a welcoming invitation and making it immediately clear who the event is including.
Illustration by Kate Leiper from sensory story project with Ailie Finlay for Wigtown Book Festival, we have a companion blog from Ailie too. Both pieces were commissioned as part of our Digital events for authors Industry Lab.