Why and How? 2017 – Engaging children with special educational needs in creative experiences and making art, Royal Academy, March

IMG_4309I can’t believe it is my third time returning to the Why and How seminar at the Royal Academy. Always a highlight in my year, it is a day dedicated to sharing best practice and ideas on engaging children with special educational needs in creative experiences and making art.


Molly Bretton welcomes delegates

Molly Bretton, the Access and Communities Manager, always puts together a day full of inspiration balanced with an opportunity for participants to get creative. It is this combination that makes for such a successful and memorable occasion.


A packed programme to start the day.

This year the focus for the day was: Health & Wellbeing, Autism and Evaluation & Legacy. As I have an autistic daughter and work with a number of museums to improve their autism access I was particularly looking forward to hearing the ways professionals have been engaging autistic individuals.


Kathryn Hitchings shared best practice from St. Joseph’s School

The day began with a session from Kathryn Hitchings, Elizabeth Lickiss and Pip McGrath from St. Joseph’s Specialist School and College which has an Arts Specialism status and caters for children with complex and severe learning/behavioural difficulties, many of whom are on the autistic spectrum. They shared their strategies in bringing the best out of their students who range in ages from 5-19.

At St. Joseph’s they have an artist in residence who is embedded in the school. They talked about the need to catalogue evidence of the success of their approach and the role of art and music on pupil behaviour. Mapping their interventions showed the impact not just on maths and literacy but across the curriculum. They talked about the importance of parental involvement and regular CPD (Continuing Professional Development) sessions for their teachers.

They very carefully monitor their artist in residence programme, particularly in these times where schools face financial pressures in order to prove value for money and ‘sell arts’ to those with a limited budget. Sessions were written up and supplemented with video and photographic evidence as well as anecdotal evidence. But what I found really interesting was their use of qualitative and quantitative evidence. They discussed a number of case studies, for example a boy who had very challenging behaviour but accessed music to improve his literacy and reactions to learning.

They mapped incidences of challenging behaviour before and after the music therapy with frequency tables as they used music to de-escalate situations. The boy in question hated literacy due to low self-esteem and a crippling fear of failure. They used his love of music to support his literacy beginning with the theory of music, where musicians come from and different musical instruments to support this. His reading at the beginning of the sessions was mapped against improvements he was making at the end of the 7 week period.

Music and art has been seen to have a much broader impact on students including fine motor skills, anxiety levels, communication, problem solving, flexibility of thought and interest in art. In all these areas there was a quantifiable difference. If pencil grip had improved there was a need to provide statistical evidence, not just anecdotal. I guess the challenge for museums and galleries is how can they use this approach to ‘sell’ art and engagement programmes to funders and donors.

At St. Joseph’s, art, drama and music therapy work together with therapists embedded in the school and class room. They get to know children rather than just taking them for 1 to 1 sessions outside the class room. It is a cohesive approach where interventions feed into each other, not simply a case of one intervention equals one success.

A question asked at the end of the session highlighted a concern that the music therapy for the case study mentioned had become a reward for bad behaviour. It was fascinating to hear how they know the child so well that they watch for small signs of anxiety and behavioural change, essentially triggers that allow them to put in place the music therapy before an escalation happens. This worked for a pupil who hadn’t accessed any classroom learning for a long time, it was inspirational to see how far this approach had improved outcomes and opportunities for this child.

We broke into small groups and my first session was on ‘Autism, Sensory Processing, Wellbeing and Clay’ with Tatjana Zeljic, a play therapist and teacher currently head of Primary at College Park School in Westminster. Tatjana talked about the link between sensory processing and emotional wellbeing. How autistic children can be ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’ sensitive, essentially seeking out or avoiding certain sensory stimulation. Being overwhelmed by sensory input can lead to melt-downs and challenging behaviour. The high states of anxiety that many autistic children and young people experience often means they cannot focus on a teacher’s tasks or learning as they become anxious, confused and scared. Natural materials such as clay, sand and water have strong therapeutic value which often allows children with autism and other learning difficulties to communicate.

We got a chance to experience this for ourselves with 10 minutes to make a clay sculpture and a further 10 minutes to make a collaborative work with our fellow attendees round the table. My owl was soon joined with a pussy cat in a pea-green boat… I think we were having so much fun we could have stayed playing all afternoon. Tatjana recommended the book – Autism and the Edges of the Known World by Olga Bogdashina, for those who wanted to read further.

She also mentioned how clay or messy play sessions often worked better in an outdoor environment where children were less anxious. We also talked of using gloves or tools to manipulate the clay where children were uncomfortable with the texture of the material. My own son likes to put familiar items in play-dough, such as toy soldiers and bits of lego, which could also be a strategy.

After lunch I took part in a much more active session with Dr Athina Stamou who talked about her academic work using music and dance to aid inclusion for children on the autism spectrum. This was carried out with children aged 4-7 in a mainstream setting. She used the music and dance to support their literacy as well as strengthen group participation and peer interaction. It was interesting to learn about the strong auditory memory autistic children have and how this can be used as a cue for sessions and an aid to learning.

My final break out session was with Debbie Goldsmith, an early years and families curator at Tate Liverpool and Sarah Marsh an artist who offers autism sessions at Tate Liverpool and Manchester Art Gallery. These early sessions keep numbers low for autistic children, young people and their families and are normally inspired by an art work or temporary exhibition.


Sarah Marsh gave us a sense of her hands-on sessions.

Visual supports are used such as ‘no touching or running’ and ‘eyes for looking’ to encourage group behaviour but Sarah talked of the importance of having another space where everything can be touched and played with to counter the no touch rule in the gallery. The ‘no running’ sign had actually come from a parent who needed to manage their child’s behaviour in the gallery space. I think this parent practitioner relationship is vital to really get the best from sessions, involving parents in planning helps them to feel comfortable, welcome and gives them a sense of ownership of the events.

Sarah talked of a simple ‘Post-it note’ trail up to a picture or space in the gallery that would be used in the session, acting as a simple visual pathway that would be easy to follow. To give us a sense of the sessions our group were taken into the very busy ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932‘ exhibition at the Royal Academy and given red strips of paper to create a response to the art on the walls. It is always a revelation to sit on the floor in a busy gallery and be creative, I find it incredibly liberating.

We were also invited to lay down in a room with Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a kind of glider model that spins slowly in the air, above us. We were given red film to look through to enjoy the sculpture and movement in a new way. It was a welcome few minutes respite on a busy day which I enjoyed immensely. It gave me the time and space to really look at the spinning sculpture and see the variation in the speed and shape as the shadows spun above me.

Sarah talked about the importance of connecting with the art work, each other and the space we were in. Also how important that there is time to just take things in, to not be active for the whole session. This is particularly of value to parents who have little peace and space when they are out as a family coping with sensory overload, something I can totally agree with.

We finished the session back in a room full of materials to play with and touch. Sarah described how she welcomes each group and that quick chat helps her understand a bit about the child’s needs and gets a feeling for the family group. This can help her tailor the session to the visitor needs.

She often uses simple word prompts around the room, not only as an aid to literacy skills but also encouraging interaction. She mentioned the sensory issues of using over-head projectors and fans, but also the importance of not having them on at the start of the session but allowing the children to turn them on. She felt the sense of control that gave meant there were less issues, but also providing ear defenders in case they were needed.

The sessions at Manchester and Liverpool give the parents time to be observers when coping with behaviour challenges and dealing with public expectations of behaviour can leave parents very little time to explore and be creative with their children. For example a mother doubted her child would be able to thread a pipe cleaner into a straw, but given time over the session he kept returning to the task and eventually succeeded. The mother was so impressed and pleased she bought the materials for home to help with the child’s development. From personal experience sometimes it is getting a chance to see what materials and tasks work for your child. I remember going to the Science Museum and watching my daughter spin a ribbon for ages getting such a calming feeling from it, I had no idea she would enjoy it so much.

Sarah also recommended Post-it notes to capture evaluations as they were easily accessible for all. She used four prompts to help encourage responses; the best thing about the session, 3 words to describe the session, One thing I would change and When I get home I am going to…


Not a lot to ask, to feel welcome

Getting everybody on board from front of house, security to cafe staff and management was key as well as using autism networks to advertise and promote the sessions. Liverpool Museums and galleries have done a lot of work with Autism Together which has been invaluable and you can find out more here (http://www.autismtogether.co.uk/could-liverpool-become-the-worlds-first-truly-autism-friendly-city/)

We were also given examples of their visual story which supports visitors and you can take a look at that here (http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/107163)


Molly Bretton introducing Susan Potter, Helen Bates, Ellen Li and Sarah Wild.

The final group discussion was titled ‘Making the invisible, visible’ with Helen Bates, who wrote a children’s book about her autistic daughter called ‘A Girl Like Tilly’, Ellen Li the illustrator of the book and Sarah Wild a head teacher from Limpsfield Grange School which is a specialist school for girls with communication and interaction issues. Rachel Bates, Helen’s daughter was due to join the panel but understandably was unable to join us due to her anxieties. She sent a message and was very much with us in spirit.

The conversation was specifically about autistic girls and how they aren’t being diagnosed because they are masking their behaviours in an effort to fit in. The painful reality is this inevitable leeds to problems later on with social and emotional difficulties including self-harming and eating disorders.

“The more we know the less we know, particularly how gender affects individuals with autism.” Judith Gould.

Sarah Wild talked about her girls, their fierce intelligence but highlighted the importance of receiving the right support at the right time. It was a final session that hit home for me as a mother of an autistic daughter approaching her 13th birthday and diagnosed when she was 7.

The importance of teaching emotional literacy, encompassing how to plan, deal with conflict, emotions, needs and friendships is just as important as english and maths. An emotional end to the day that remains with me is just the simple idea of understanding what makes an autistic girl happy may not be what makes a neurotypical girl happy. Finding the markers for that happy life and helping my daughter achieve it is the most important role I have as a mother.


A busy thought filled creative day at the Royal Academy

At the Royal Academy I spent the day with numerous professionals, artists, educators, curators and museum workers whose role is to provide environments to experience, realise and achieve that happiness through art, music and above all understanding and I can’t thank them enough.


My Blogs on previous years seminar –

2016 – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/why-and-how-2016-engaging-children-with-special-education-needs-in-creative-experiences-and-art-royal-academy/

2015 – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/why-and-how-engaging-children-with-special-educational-needs-in-creating-art-and-cultural-experiences-royal-academy-march-2015/

Links from the day –

Royal Academy – Why and How Seminar 2017 – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/why-and-how-2017

St. Joseph’s Specialist School and College – http://st-josephscranleigh.surrey.sch.uk/

Recommended by Tatjana Zeljic – Autism and the edges of the known world by Olga Bogdashina http://www.jkp.com/uk/autism-and-the-edges-of-the-known-world.html

Sarah Evelyn Marsh an artist who runs autism sessions at Manchester Art Gallery and Tate Liverpool – http://evelynarts.co.uk/ @evelynarts

Livepool Museums/Galleries and Autism Together – http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/learning/autism-sessions.aspx

Tate Liverpool Visual Story – http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/107163

Limpsfield Grange School http://www.limpsfieldgrange.co.uk

A girl like Tilly – http://agirlliketilly.com

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