By Joanna Grace
In recent years the number of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities in education in the UK has risen by over 40% which means that all over the country new teachers and teaching assistants are getting to work with these extraordinary people.
Often times these children are the recipients of pity, and whilst it is true that they lead very challenged lives and often face extraordinary medical challenges it is not true to think that rounding all of that off with the insult of pity is the right response.
Those who work with these children will tell you that they inspire anything but pity, these children teach us to meet life head on, the child whose body fails them but who still laughs reminds us all that our own lives are not so tough. The child who, in spite of significant neurological challenges still pushes their limbs to move and to do as they command them doesn’t ask for pity, they teach us that our own mountains are surmountable.
The most common thing I hear from people who support the education of children with complex learning and developmental disabilities or profound and multiple learning disabilities is that they have been taught by those children more than they have taught those children. We learn an enormous amount from those who are different to ourselves. And those differences need recognising, celebrating and providing for.
To work with these children is to be inspired every day. But how do we go about teaching a child whose body and brain present them with so many barriers to learning? How do we even begin to attempt to repay that debt of education we owe to them?
The answer is we start with the sensory. Sensory engagement simply means engaging someone’s sensory systems. Our sensory systems are the start point for learning. And whilst for most of us engaging the senses is quite simple, it requires a sound, or a sight, or a smell, for these children it can be a far more nuanced art form.
When I hold a toy car out to you, you recognise it as a toy car and you know the types of games you might be able to play with it. Your brain uses an extraordinarily large amount of information to identify it as a toy car. Scientists working on the development of artificial intelligence will tell you how hard it is to do the programming that enables a machine to identify ‘car’ when shown a car in real life, a car in a picture and a toy car. Yet our brains do it with little hesitation. If you are the owner of a brain that is not neurologically typical identifying an object, let alone naming it, becomes rapidly much harder. When I hold a red toy car out to you one day you respond to the shape and colour and explore it. Tomorrow when I hold a blue toy car out to you, perhaps you recognise it as the same and begin to apply your learning from yesterday but more likely you see something different and begin your learning again, placing the information you learn from this exchange into a new repository in your mind.
Understanding how to present sensory experience in an accessible way and sequence it into more complex learning is key to engaging learners accessing the curriculum at a sensory level. My course Sensory Engagement for Sensory Beings: A Beginners Guide is aimed at people who are in their first few years of supporting the education of learners with profound and multiple learning disabilities or complex learning and developmental disabilities. On it delegates explore a variety of sensory teaching tools they can use as soon as they get back to the classroom and get to ask all the question they might have without fear of sounding silly in front of more experienced practitioners. Parents are very welcome on the course as we know learning goes on around the clock, homework can be just as important to a child with complex needs as it is to a child who is typically developing.