Into The Senses with Joanna Grace

Portrait of Joanna Grace

Founder of The Sensory Projects, Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement specialist, an author, storyteller, TEDx speaker, teacher and a trainer rated outstanding by Ofsted. Joanna’s new book The Subtle Spectrum: An Honest Account of Autistic Discovery, Relationships and Identity is her eighth publication — an exploration of the landscape of autism through questioning, accepting and embracing autistic cultural identity.

Anthony Garrett had a virtual cup of tea online with Joanna to find out more about her new book and other ventures as a successful professional with autism, breaking boundaries and building bridges in a neuro-typical world.

Anthony: Hi Joanna, thanks for joining me… please do share with us a bit about your background and how you started your career?

Joanna: As a child my favourite thing was cardboard boxes and sellotape… that sort of ad hoc “making stuff out of rubbish” is what I love to do! And as a child I never thought you could make a job out of it. That, along with my background in inclusion as my mum and grandma both worked for a more inclusive society in their own way, and I also have family members with physical disabilities and neuro-divergent conditions.

I first worked as a support worker for a gentleman with a brain injury when I was 13. Professionally, I worked supporting children with additional learning needs in mainstream settings, and for a good chunk of time I was a teacher at a school for children with severe and profound special educational needs and disabilities.

I’ve been a registered foster carer for complexly disabled children, and have worked with individuals as young as a day old and as old as an 87-year-old. I have also completed a masters degree in special needs and I’m currently studying a doctorate.

The 5 senses

Anthony: How did you come to work in the sensory and storytelling field?

Joanna: When I was brand new to teaching, starting out with six students between six and eight years old who had complex needs, two other students from our special care class would join our peer age class group on Wednesdays.

I used to spend my weekends, evenings and holidays planning lessons for this inclusive class. I wanted something we could all do together and a teacher from the next room asked if I had ever tried a sensory story. She gave me a box with sensory stories inside and this was my “ah-ha, hallelujah” moment… “this is the answer!” It was something I could meaningfully do with both sets of students, the more capable and those with more complex needs. I thought this was the absolute best thing since sliced bread!

From that moment, my entire curriculum was sensory-based, from Maths to PE and Cookery. Eleven years later, I started The Sensory Story Project, which was to write five sensory stories that were affordable for the price of a typical children’s book, with a wide range of stimulus and inclusive narratives.

Anthony: How has your personal journey with autism influenced your professional career?

Joanna: My PhD supervisors in my doctorate commented positively that I have a brain which absorbs an enormous amount of information on a topic, and the ability to cross-reference this info. At heart I am a big geek, which my Twitter feed reflects as it’s where I share all this technical research.

Being autistic, understanding this over time I have learned to overcome the crossed wires in what can be overwhelming information. It is where these crossed wires become useful that I have learned to utilise my autistic traits.

I think in some situations, I am gradually edging forward and know better what to communicate in comparison to my standard, neurotypical friends!

I view myself as a professional yogurt-pot telephone… taking information that I have studied to bring it across in a way that is useful. Most of what I do is passing on information, deciding what is relevant.

It has taken a long time to learn from being autistic and I have become hyper-aware of what I am communicating, thinking of what others want to hear and talk about, like “the hare and the tortoise” situation. It’s not something I can do naturally, I have to work very hard to do this consciously.

Anthony: What is your favourite sense?

Joanna: People typically think of the famous five senses but on the Sensory Project I tend to run into eight or nine senses — once you start working with the subconscious senses it is easy to run into more.

Technically, there are 33 sets of neurons that control your senses, it just depends how you group them. It’s like constellations in the sky — people group them up in different ways.

For the favourite sense, my initial instinct was to say “proprioception” (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body in space) but then I was thinking… smell. Processed by the limbic brain, it is a very emotional sense. So if I say to you, Van Gogh’s Sunfowers or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, you can see the image in your head. And if I say Britney’s, “Hit me baby, one more time” or the B52’s “Love Shack”, you hear it in your head, but you cannot simply recall smell. Smell is a present sense; smell connects you to a heightened vivid moment.

Anthony: How did you come up with your recent publication which looks at the cultural identity of being autistic?

Joanna: My new book was inspired in a supermarket while reflecting on my son’s acknowledgement of how I process information and deal with being autistic. The book summarises years of gathered research mixed with personal and contemporary experiences. 

Joanna has free sensory stories available on: www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk and her book An Honest Account of Autistic Discovery, Relationships and Identity is available from www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/books

This interview first appeared in Guideposts’ Better Connected Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine or join Better Connected, please sign up here.

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