When you think of a story, what comes to mind? Hardback book covers lined up on a shelf? Your Netflix homepage? The smell of lavender probably doesn’t rank high on your list, but sensory engagement and inclusion specialist Joanna Grace believes all of our senses, including smell, can be used as a medium to share a story.
Joanna is founder of The Sensory Projects, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of ‘Sensory Beings’. Joanna explains that Sensory Beings are people whose primary experience of the world, and meaning within it, is sensory; for example people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) or people with complex autism. In order for them to enjoy a story, it has to be told a little differently.
She says: “There are masses of benefits to sharing a story. They are how you create and maintain friendships, and they form your identity. Our lives are made up of masses and masses of stories. If you are non-verbal and you can’t experience stories through words and pictures, how do you get those benefits?”
Having worked with Sensory Beings for over two decades, Joanna recognised the importance of stories that engaged and included them, and set about creating tales that did just that.
She explains: “People get very hooked on a story being words, but that is because we are language-focused people. Sensory stories don’t rely on words; this makes them very inclusive. They can be accessed by people who don’t share your language or who don’t understand language. They are especially good for children with special needs.”
Sensory stories consist of ten sentences, each one paired with a carefully chosen sensory experience like a smell, taste or sound.
“The stories are a way to share the world, and it is wonderful. The first time you tell, it might not get any response, but you repeat it over and over again and you see an increase in responses. You see them showing communicative actions like making noises or reaching. If you have a big bang in the story that has made them jump the first few times, you’ll see them tense up because they know the bang is coming next. That’s them saying, ‘I remember this story, I know what’s coming next.”
But although the stories are fun, they often also provide much-needed support. Joanna uses the example of a hospital trip - a regular occurrence in the lives of children with profound needs.
“If you go into hospital there is a very particular set of sensory experiences. You smell the anti-bac hand gel, you see the green washy colour everywhere and people touch you wearing rubber gloves. And all of those things are different and weird, even to people who fully understand what is happening to them. Then something big and scary happens that hurts, and if you are a Sensory Being that is your understanding of it. That is what you associate with those sensory experiences.”
Joanna explains that smell particularly is an emotional sense, and one that can have a large impact on reactions and mental state. By including smells in her stories she is able to create positive associations with smells that might otherwise be linked with negative experiences.
“What I would love is for more people and schools to be doing is using sensory stories that use all of those experiences and simulations, but in a positive way. So a story about unicorns and butterflies where the unicorns have latex hooves and they smell like anti-bac hand gel.”
By introducing these smells, sounds, and sensory experiences in the comfort of the home, they become linked to those comforting memories.
“You can’t stop the big scary thing from happening, but hopefully when they go back to the hospital the anti-bac will remind them of unicorns and not of operations.”
Joanna is keen to emphasise the simplicity of the stories. A key part of The Sensory Projects is showing parents and teachers that providing sensory experience doesn’t have to be expensive. Using just a few drops of essential oil on a cotton pad, Joanna is able to create intense experiences that help transport people to outer space, distant meadows or under the sea – giving them access to this world and imaginary worlds in ways they would never otherwise experience.