Set their spirits free

11th April 2008 at 01:00

Exploring the mystical and sensual dimensions of religion makes lessons more interesting for children with special needs. Anne Krisman explains


The heady smell of incense, the whirling of Sufi devotional dancers, the sound of the call to prayer, the taste of egg in salt water at Pesach, the feel of a tallit prayer shawl. We can hardly separate the senses and religion. In the same way, pupils within special schools experience the world through their senses. An autistic boy in one special school often has a spot of colour on his nose - while painting a picture he gets close to the paper and sniffs the paint. Some pupils cover their ears and make sounds, enjoying the resonance and vibrations.

Believers talk about spiritual moments that connect with the senses. A Russian Orthodox convert told sixth formers in a special school about being sprinkled with holy water during the festival of Theophony, and in Russia he entered a monastery and was awed at seeing a wall of golden icons. The class was spellbound. One pupil said: "We know how you feel, Sir, you were gob-smacked."

How can we create an authentic form of RE for pupils with special needs that conveys the power of religion for believers and that also communicates to them through the senses?

The clue is to search faiths for powerful sensory elements. This might mean going in a different direction from traditional RE. Judaism schemes of work always have the Friday night Shabbat meal as a focus. However, the Shabbat closure ceremony called havdalah - meaning "separation" - when Shabbat is bid farewell and the ordinary week begins, is more relevant for pupils with special needs. Many pupils enjoy waving goodbye to visitors, and here is an opportunity to say goodbye to a festival.

Multisensory elements include passing and smelling spices in a container. A braided candle is lit - some participants in the ceremony hold their hands up to the flame, so the reflection of the light is seen in their fingernails. Mystical melodies and songs are sung. Wine that has been blessed is allowed to spill from the cup into a saucer, and the candle is extinguished. The hissing sound conveys the end of Shabbat.

Search deeply within religions to find multisensory elements and you touch on the mystical and spiritual dimensions of faith. The Islamic Sufi tradition could inspire a lesson.

It could begin with qawaali devotional songs, stimulating to pupils because of the building intensity of the music, drumming and clapping. Using the idea of dhikr - remembrance of God's name - pupils can touch Islamic plaques with raised Arabic letters. They could make marks, copy Arabic letters or their name in gold paint on black paper and then fold the paper to make a reflection.

Flo Longhorn, the skilled practitioner of multisensory RE, talks about one of the aims of religious education for young people with special needs as being part of a "two-way communicating world".

The multisensory approach can help pupils to understand what it means to belong to a religion as well as celebrating their sensory world. Delving into the deeper experience of believers leads to a powerful, authentic form of RE.

Anne Krisman is head of RE at Little Heath Foundation School in Romford, Essex. Anne's Growing in RE, a pdf booklet on RE and special needs, written for RE Today, can be downloaded from

- How do you teach your subject to special needs pupils? Share your lesson with us at

For more on RE see pages 58 to 61.

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