quinta-feira, 22 de outubro de 2009

Communicating with children using smells


Sofia’s world is largely a dark and silent one. As a blind and deaf child of 9, her sense of smell is one of the few means by which she can interpret the landscape.And what she is smelling today, on a small, laminated square, is the seaside. The ozonic scent of salty air, wet sand, seaweed and ocean spray has been replicated and impregnated on to a scrap of paper.

Alongside her, Harrison, 4, is rolling his head back and smiling deliriously. The aroma infused on to his card is that of a farm yard. Horses, hay, manure, cows, green fields — incredibly all this has been distilled on to an inch of cardboard. Another smell that has been created in readiness for November 5 is the bouquet of Bonfire Night.

The children are among pupils aged between 2 and 19 at the Seashell Trust School, in Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, formerly known as the Royal School for the Deaf, where a soap and shampoo firm has been enlisted to help severely disabled children to communicate for the first time via olfaction.

PZ Cussons, the company behind Imperial Leather and Carex, which has an innovation centre in nearby Salford, has seconded its creative perfumer Kate Williams to work with the school to help children with varying levels of multisensory impairment to make choices about what they eat and drink, the activities on offer and to help them to put the environment in context.

It may involve using smell to tell a carer whether they want chocolate or strawberry milkshake or it may be, as Anne Gough, who runs the school’s sensory unit, says, that the staff use smells simply for comfort, pleasure or to calm. A marshmallow scent is good for this. Vanilla is apparently the universal smell of happiness. Most children will respond positively to something that smells sweet.

The Seashell Trust is both a day and residential, co-educational, non-maintained special school, offering specialist provision for pupils who have severe and complex disabilities, combined with communication difficulties.

One boy, whenever he goes to the park, sniffs the metallic chains that hold the swings. Kate has therefore recreated that unique, ferrous smell and this is a way of telling him that he is about to go to the park. For most people it is almost impossible to imagine such levels of disability, such sensory limitations, but Anne, whose inspirational skills last year won her the Special Needs Teacher of the Year award, believes that we must not underestimate such children’s capabilities. “People will be amazed at what these children can achieve,” she says. “Some people have low expectations of them and I think this is wrong.”

Indeed, one of the hardest things for sensory-impaired people to understand is concept and representation. But by using the smell-card, one child with partial vision has learnt to recognise pictures and words — a remarkable achievement. A further development in progress to help children to recognise classmates or members of staff is to create unique scents for staff, and thus enable them to distinguish between teachers. Plug-in fragrances are already used to help children to understand days of the week. Monday smells of lemon, for instance, and Tuesday of lavender.

Sofia’s ability to read the world around her is limited even further by her physical handicap. Her hands make involuntary movements and thus she cannot even rely on her fingers to relay information and navigate her surroundings. “If Sofia was being taken to the farm, she would just arrive there and that would be it,” says Kate. “But if you have introduced the idea beforehand by smell it helps to put it in context.” Similarly, since she is fed by a gastric tube, presenting the smell of milk communicates to her what is about to happen.

“Eighty per cent of your learning is visual and 15 per cent is aural so that only leaves \ these children with 5 per cent. This is why it’s so important to give them a medium,” says Anne. “What Kate has done is incredible. These aren’t smells that you can buy in a shop; she has had to break down the smell into individual elements and recreate it in her lab.”

The Seashell Trust changed its name last year to emphasise working with students rather than providing things for them. Children who are deaf are usually educated within mainstream schools.

The Seashell thus offers facilities for pupils with multisensory impairment and with multiple learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders and physical and medical conditions. All children are taught on a one-to-one basis which makes it an expensive place to run.

While fragrance may not seem like a major breakthrough, to these children it provides a language. Simply being able to communicate to a teacher — whether it’s with a smile or a gesture — what they do or don’t want to eat while out on a day trip empowers them by giving them choice.

Kate says that creating a fragrance is like creating music. A single note may be orange oil or lemon oil and chords are created when things are put together. “When we gave the fragrances to one child, it was like we spoke to him in a different language, one that he understood,” she says. “If you can create a fragrance to help the children learn they just run with it.”

TimesOnline

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