The Sensational Sensory Selection Salon Project
A person's ability to communicate is not dependent on their mastery of certain skills, it is dependent on our ability to listen.
Listening comes in many forms
The Sensory Projects believe that a person's ability to communicate is not dependent on their mastery of certain skills but on our ability to listen. That listening can come in many forms, of course there is the good old fashioned listening with our ears to vocalisations and speech, but there is also listening with our eyes to expression, to muscular changes however small, however subtle, there is listening with all our senses. There is even listening with some of our lesser well known senses, for example interoception.
Interoception is key in communicating
Interoception is the sensory system that allows us to perceive our own feelings. Our own feelings play a key role in communication. Our bodies naturally match the body states of those bodies around them, we will move to their rhythms, our hearts beat to their rhythms, we may even feel ourselves to become hotter or to feel pain in response to their sensations. The way we feel will change in response to how someone near us is feeling as our body works to match their body. This is commonly referred to as instinct or having a gut feeling about someone, but it is actually a wonderful sensory skill. If we tune into our feelings and listen to what our interoception is telling us, we may hear a communication coming through those subtle changes as our body responds to their body.
We must not lose sight of the full gamut of communication
People who are skilled in formal methods of communication often leapfrog over the fundamentals of communication and lose sight of its omnipresence in life. Where there is life, there is communication. We think about babies learning to talk as 'developing communication' when of course they were communicating plenty before they mastered words. Narratives that describe someone as unable to communicate, simply because they do not use verbal communication or sign or symbol communications are dangerous as they can lead to people not listening to the communication that is there.
Communication is a two player game
Communication is a two way process, like a game of tennis, one person serves and the other receives, then the receiver becomes the server as they hit the ball back. The back and forthness of communication is what makes it communication. It does not matter how skilled a linguist you are if you are talking to a wall you are not communicating. Consider two communication partners:
One who has a wealth of cognitive abilities to draw on and who has already mastered several standardised forms of communication.
One who lives in a body that does not allow them access the the cognitive abilities we enjoy or the physical modes of communication we might use.
Currently when seeking to bridge the gap between these two communicative skill sets we put the onus on the latter person to 'up their game.' If one person is supposedly 'able' and one person is 'disabled' why on earth are we presuming that it is the disabled person's job to make up the distance?
If someone cannot communicate you need to improve your communication skills, not theirs
In tennis if you are serving to someone less able to move than yourself you might step a little closer to them to make the game a little easier (rather than demand they instantly improve their serve). In non-verbal communication it should be the same, it is we who ought to be learning more, 'upping our game', stepping closer, developing our skills. The listeners need to improve. Of course, just as with the tennis, in time we will hope to support our partner to develop their game, but play should not be contingent on them doing that. Play should be enjoyed all along, indeed if it is that is their best chance of having the practice they need to develop their skills.
Squashing communication does not motivate the development of new communicative skills
There is a huge risk when we are looking to establish new communication methods, like the use of language, signs or symbols, of inadvertently squashing pre-existing communication. If the ball is already in play, bouncing back and forth and we are enjoying the to-and-fro of conversation (in whatever form that conversation takes) we should not stop play to introduce new skills. It is the to-and-fro that is enjoyed, it is that which motivates curiosity, engagement and learning. New communication methods should be built up alongside pre-existing communications, not bluntly swapped for them, and pre-existing methods of communication should not be rejected. Rejecting a communication is akin to declaring you do not want to play anymore. If a person feels their communication partner does not want to play, why would they bother trying to master the new system?
What has a salon got to do with communication?
Setting up The Sensational Sensory Selection Salon
The Sensational Sensory Selection Salon was set up as an ideal environment for everyone to practice their communication skills within. With the help of our local Scrapstore and LUSH we created three distinct zones in a disused classroom. The zones were delineated visually, olfactory, tactily and auditorially, such that each looked different and had distinct smells, sounds and touch experiences within them. The black dark space was peaceful, within it massage was experienced with spiced massage bars. The red space was filled with ambient white noise sounds, its walls sparkled and glittered, and inside rich bath bombs fizzed. The green space led into the outdoors, bubbles filled the air, alongside seagull cries and the sound of the wind and the lotions and potions played with in this space were zingy and full of citrus scents.
Getting familiar with the sensory selection and the space
Sensory Being consultants and the staff who support them were invited at first to simply get used to the space. To learn what it is like in each zone, to experience the different sensations on offer and to become familiar with the environment. For the staff this familiarity might lodge at a cognitive level in their minds, their memories, their understanding. For the consultants the familiarity is an embodied one, like muscle memory, a sensory memory for the feel and impression of each space. Once everyone was well versed in the space the real work began.
The salon was designed to have a very particular entrance point, upon entering the space you come to a position in the room where all three distinct environments are presented to you simultaneously. The three environments fan out from a single point. Sensory Being consultants were brought to this point and then the staff accompanying them waited. And then they waited some more. And some more. ( A Penny Lacey's amount of wait!)
Waiting was active. Waiting is not the same as not-doing, waiting is holding a moment, it is a suspension, a hovering, a....waiting! The staff waited, watching, listening, feeling, observing, for a communication of preference. The smallest of indications was acted upon. Validating these emergent (in our perception, not in reality, they are wholly there all the time, they simply emerge in our ability to notice them) expressions of preference staff found that communications became more confident. The consultants knew, upon entering the room, that they would get to do whatever they so chose to do. You can see in the video above the joy of being heard and of having your agency respected.
The Sensational Sensory Selection Project would not have been possible without the continued dedicated support of the students and staff of Curnow School, and their parents and carers who all consistently support the work of The Sensory Projects and are very tolerant of the colourful noisy chaos that so often descends on them when we are in town.
Enormous thanks also goes to LUSH for their generosity in gifting us all their wonderful smells and textures.
The Scrapstores are a nationwide network of recycling centres, the creation of the space was possible thanks to our membership of our local scrapstore, we heartily encourage others to look up their local store and discover the potential hidden within.