I was invited by Łaznia CSW, to introduce autism-friendly strategies into the gallery through an artistic collaboration with Learning Manager, Ania Meronk. An important element of the project was the engagement of the local community, we wanted to observe first-hand how families with children with autism and other social communication challenges connected with the galleries interior and exterior spaces; what was interesting, important and illuminating to them? As a group we developed these connections through creative ideas and open-ended engagement, we revealed how the gallery (inside and out), worked as a suitable learning space, and offered feedback on ways the gallery could support further developmental work in the future.
Working with children with Autism means that verbal communication isn’t necessarily the way you will communicate, so it was crucial I created an environment that was comfortable, supportive and encouraged meaningful experiences. As a group with a broad spectrum of abilities, it was essential each participant was able to command the space in whatever way best suited them. This led to varying expressions of communication; numbers were written, repeated and turned into patterns, drawn symbols were used to represent inanimate objects, favourite foods were re-imagined using fabrics and stones. One participant took photographs to document her creations, she also used her experiences in the sessions to inspire an entire play with script. One afternoon we all sat and read through it, as someone who couldn’t read Polish, I listened along with other participants who couldn’t verbalise. Some participants used the handmade objects to express and trigger feelings.
Space in the process encouraged new ways of communicating, it led us to develop our own unique language. I visualise the constructed spaces as our world, the materials were our language and we communicated through actions, responses and reactions, in physical, emotive and vocal ways. The sensory quality of this new realm, was of over-arching importance, everything was explored with different parts of our bodies, we felt our way through the sessions, and the participants reactions acted as spring boards in the development of the project. As time went by, our understanding of each other deepened and it was touching to see the positive benefits the sessions had on the parents. Not only did some start to join in with activities, but they seemed more relaxed, the sessions gave them a chance to sit and have a coffee, share experiences and stories and observe their child from a new distance. This physical space between the parent and the child would often encourage deeper engagement by the child.
The outdoor sessions always seemed more stimulating, the natural sensations of the environment, of the sun, wind and sounds added another textured layer to the sessions. Music became integral, we selected magical, other worldly music, such as, Midori Takada’s, Through The Looking Glass. Music with interesting beats and tempo’s created calmness in the participants, especially piano music, like Philip Glass. We played the music through handheld rubber speakers, so the sounds could be felt close to the body, through the body, with some participants enjoying the reverberating sensations.
Space in the process is a chapter to my sensory-inspired research journey, rather than a conclusion. The project has given me space to reflect on the work I’ve developed in UK galleries, and to consider how the ideas and concepts translate in a different country. An extension of this research was the experience of working closely with a group of families who speak a different language to me. The processes we went through as a group have informed the legacy of the project and future implementations that may occur. What these specifically are is unclear at the time of writing, but there is talk of further engagement with the original families and a broader, larger project that culminates in an exhibition of engagement in 2018.
My personal development from this project continues, I’m now making a collection of sensory-inspired objects and I’m interested in how I can adapt my ideas for all ages and abilities. Some of these pieces are wearable and functional, some are developing into larger, sculptural elements, all of this new body of work has a sensory quality to it and I’m eager to see where it takes me next…the journey continues. (And I’m trying to improve my Polish)!
A special thanks to Ania, Monika and Ewa for their support and observations. And to the families involved, I hope to see you all again soon!