Katie Goh chats with Kirstin Abraham, Joanna Young and Max Alexander about the work they’re doing as part of the Sensory Collective project.

Audio/captioned version of this blog post.

“People tend to think access is clunky and unexciting!” says visual artist and play practitioner Kirstin Abraham. “Usually in the arts, people add accessibility at the end of projects as a box ticking thing and don’t build it in from the start. But if you have artists tackling access, it can be a really beautiful, creative thing.” 

Picture: Nina Doherty

Kirstin is one of six artists who form the Sensory Collective, a 21-month-long programme of sensory arts projects for participants who experience multiple barriers to access mainstream arts activities. As the parent of a child with autism, Kirstin became a play facilitator and drew from her skills as a visual artist to work with neurodivergent children after experiencing just how inaccessible events were for her own family. “I was sick of going into sensory rooms where there are just lights and things chucked in that overstimulate and overwhelm,” she says. “[Arts projects] often don’t take the whole family dynamic into consideration, which is why I like to work with families. I like to create pockets of time, even if it’s just 20 minutes for a family to be in a moment together and forget about daily stresses.”

For her programme with the Sensory Collective, Kirstin has been working with three families with neurodivergent children, including her own, to bring them outside and experience the elements. “My project has been very bespoke and collaborative with families and it’s been about building a relationship with each family to see what’s good for them,” she explains. To ensure accessibility is the foundation of her programme, Kirstin takes time to prepare each family session, always meeting with external facilitators in advance of each separate session to discuss access requirements in advance. This ensures everyone at sessions is clued up on the participant and the family’s needs. So that when the family arrives, they can simply enjoy their session together.

Picture: Kat Gollock

“Yesterday we did wild swimming which was amazing. I wanted the family to experience something in nature and go outdoors because families I work with often can’t or don’t get to do these kinds of outside experiences. I didn’t think we’d manage to get the whole family in the water! The participant’s mum was so happy with the experience! They had never done anything like this before, and were a little apprehensive, but really enthusiastic to give it a go. They all managed to get in, some even jumping in the freezing cold water!”

Another Sensory Collective artist working with the natural elements for her programme is Joanna Young, a choreographer currently practising in Govanhill. “I’ve always been interested in working within communities over long periods of time,” says Joanna about her creative focus.  “For me, it’s about developing relationships with people and places, and then letting the work emerge from there. I see my work as a choreographer as shining a light on what’s already happening, developing practices and finding new ways to relate and tune into the landscape of the body and how that’s communicated externally, so working with emerging sensations through bodies meeting other bodies, places and objects.”

Joanna has previously been part of a collaborative project called ‘Bodies of water’, made in collaboration with Saffy Setohy, Aya Kobayashi and Nicolette Mcleod. For her work with the Sensory Collective, Joanna wanted to take aspects of ‘Bodies of water’ and explore them with participants living with Alzheimers and dementia. Working with participants from the Dixon Community, a day care centre in Glasgow, Joanna used found objects from the beach and the body’s connection to water as a starting off point. 

Picture: Erika Stevenson

“Because of the pandemic, the centre hadn’t been able to do any trips to the beach,” says Joanna. “I did some beach combing and brought in pebbles, rocks and shells and we laid things out on the table to explore and play with. The structure of the sessions is to have sensory time around the table, and then take that into a movement practice. We use what we’ve touched and smelled and explored through our senses to make a dance together.” 

Joanna has also been able to invite her previous ‘Bodies of water’ collaborators, Saffy Setohy and Aya Kobayashi, into her sessions, as well as another Sensory Collective artist, Kirsty Biff, to explore voice work with the group. “We’ve been learning sea shanties,” says Joanna with a laugh. “It’s been very fun and playful, with a lot of laughter, stories and songs that have emerged through our relationship to water and the sea.” 

Photo: Erika Stevenson

Collaboration has always been at the heart of Joanna’s practice and she looks forward to continuing to work with other Sensory Collective artists and participants. “I’ve got a belief that nothing is created in isolation,” she says. “Everything is interrelational and affected by everything else. The idea of an artist being separate from the community has never sat well with me. My practice never feels as dynamic as when I’m working with people or with a place.” 

Creating through collaboration is also the centre of Max Alexander’s Sensory Collective project. An artist, playworker and creative facilitator, Max works primarily with children and young people who are disabled and/or neurodivergent to engage in play and create play spaces together. “When I talk about play, that space can be physical, emotional, intellectual, sensory or any mix within or beyond that. It’s where you’re not trying to achieve anything other than being in the moment playing,” he explains.

Picture: Mhari Robinson

Max’s Sensory Collective project is called Function Schmunction – “Originally a working title but I love it; it makes me smile!” – and it is a space that celebrates and is for the play of autistic people. “I’ve worked in this area for years and am repeatedly told that a child doesn’t play because they’re autistic and it’s never true,” says Max. “It may seem true to the person saying it because they have a certain idea of what play or communication is. But it’s a persistent and quite damaging thing. Play is a really intricate part of our experiences and identities and it’s often dismissed for autistic people.” 

Working with participants who range from age five to 40, Max has been facilitating one-on-one play sessions for each individual. “I go in with the questions: how does this person play and how do they want to play?” he says. So far the sessions have featured sword fights, deflating yoga balls, making noise in the woods and inventing knots. The next step for the project is to take learnings from these sessions and develop a series of play objects and elements of a playground that can travel and facilitate play for even more people. “I like the idea of creating a slow, long line of connection between different people,” says Max. “And moving forward, the people I worked with one to one will be involved with where the wider project goes, so there’s still ongoing involvement and opportunity there.” 

Besides developing the roaming playground, Max will also be creating a digital archive of his work with the Sensory Collective, where visuals, audio and write ups can be accessible for other facilitators. “Autistic culture exists because autistic people exist,” explains Max. “But it doesn’t exist in medical literature or in NHS leaflets that get handed out to people when they get diagnosed. [Autistic people] often connect in more slower, sporadic, non-linear ways that maybe don’t get recorded or seen in the same way, so the archive will keep a record of that. Often autistic people are only seen as people who can only consume culture. But something that’s on my mind with my project is that we are not just consumers of culture, but also creators of it.”

Katie Goh is a writer and editor based in Edinburgh. Katie is the First Person editor at gal-dem, Non-fiction editor at Extra Teeth and contributes to publications like i-D, the Guardian and Huck. Katie’s writing has been shortlisted for the Kavya Prize, the Anne Brown Jassy Prize and PPA Scotland’s Young Journalist of the Year. Her first book, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters is out now with 404 Ink.

Photography Credit – (top) Catriona Parmenter