The Sensory Art Project – Jo Grace

If you are someone with complex needs art is often a process that happens to you, rather than one in which you play an active role. Of course being involved in any way is a lot of fun, it’s nice to have your hand smeared with paint and to see the colours, feel the textures, smell the smell of the paint, experience the closeness to the person who is pressing your hand onto the page, it’s great but it’s not creative. And being creative holds special benefits.

When I asked a room full of interdisciplinary artists, sculptors, fine artists, graphic designers, ceramicists, abstract painters, photographers etc, what they got from taking part in art not one person said they did it in order to make an end product. They all spoke about the creative process and how it helped them to understand themselves, the world, how it helped them to connect with others and express things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to express and how it helped them with their mental health.

Just reflect on those things again:

A better understanding of self.

A better understanding of the world.

A greater connection with others and with the environment.

Improved mental health.

Aren’t they things you want for the people you support?

The art project was the second project from The Sensory Projects, and its aim was to enable people with complex disabilities to independently create works of art. How we managed that would take more words to explain than I have here, but if you’re curious you can read more on The Structured Sensory Art Project, and watch a few little films of the work. What I want to talk here about is that last one: improved mental health. As this is something we can facilitate through all our sensory exchanges, not just those involved in art.

The facilitation of sensory experience is key to supporting mental well being for everyone but it is especially for people whose primary experience of the world, and meaning within it, is sensory (I refer to these people as Sensory Beings, these could be people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, or people with complex autism, or people with any number of other conditions which mean they fit that description). How we support mental well being through sensory engagement techniques is something I explore in a condensed version of this content at the Mental Well Being Day in December. Here I want to share just one example with you, and I hope that in it you will see how supporting mental well being through sensory experience is not a magic wand strategy. I am not promising you that there is this particular sensory ritual that if followed precisely yields mental well being for the person you are caring for. Rather that supporting a Sensory Being’s mental well being is a continuous process made up of thousands upon thousands of small considerations, this being just one:


Suppose the Sensory Being in your care loves a particular resource, for argument’s sake let’s say it is a toy car. You regularly give the Sensory Being the toy car, they explore it and are happy. You have not done anything wrong, but there is the chance to do more.

You keep the toy car in a box on the shelf. Ordinarily you take the car out and pass it to the Sensory Being fait et compli – suppose you changed this so that instead of passing them the car, you lifted down the box and opened it with them, revealing the car. This tiny difference offers a boost to mental well being to understand how we need to think a little more philosophically.

Consider what it is to feel depressed, you have probably experienced a period of depression or no someone who has. At its core depression is the feeling that things are not going to change, that no matter what you do life will always be this way. Research shows that the more disabled a person is the more likely they are to experience mental health problems. If you are supporting a Sensory Being they are at high risk of mental health problems such as depression.

When they see the box and then see the car come out of it, what they learn at a most basic level is that life is not all that it seems to be. Life is more than the box they see. It is possible that inside the boring current perception of life is a toy car. What you are telling them at a fundamental level is that change is possible and change can be wonderful. They learn this through seeing the car revealed.

I will be sharing three other examples of these simple sensory strategies at the mental well being day in December as well as looking at how some of our sensory strategies can also support our own mental well being and on the Sensory Engagement for mental well being day I will have time to share even more. I hope to see you at both!

Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer and founder of The Sensory Projects. Connect with her online through Twitter  Linkedin   Facebook

Jo Grace will be presenting at our SEMH Conference in London on 1 December 2017.