Did you know that dinosaurs aren't really extinct? They've just had their heads buried under
beanbags for the last several millennia.
And if you don't believe me, just go ahead and ask the wonderful Learning Team at the British Library: they witnessed it themselves when we brought along six of the wisest families I have ever met, and discovered a nonsense world of which no other group could ever have dreamed.
These families came to us via Centre 404, a charity that offers person centred support to people with learning disabilities. The kids, at the tender ages of 5-11, were a mix of autistic
and their neurotypical siblings. Unusually for a participation project like this, we got to work not just with the kids, but their grown-ups too. This was a real gift, as it meant that, rather than us being in power and 'teaching' the 'right' way of doing things, everyone was a learner - and that includes staff, too.
What's the first thing people tend to think of when they hear the word 'autistic'? Rigid ways of thinking? Hyper-literal? Anxious about things that don't make sense? Perhaps I could pick up that last one and suggest that actually, the fear can be of things that don't make sense to them, but do seem to make sense to other, neurotypical people. Framed like that, it sounds perfectly logical. I get very nervous when I can't get my head around something, but everyone else seems to be able to, and gets on with it happily while I'm left in the dark - don't you? This can be a fairly constant state for autistic people. Which is very unfair as there is nothing that makes neurodivergent thought processes 'wrong' - our society just isn't built around them because they're outnumbered. Neurotypical folk can probably be just as rigid - only they don't get challenged about it nearly so often.
But what if we make a set of rules that doesn't make sense to anyone? What if we create a space where it's impossible to get things 'right'? Hierarchies disappear. Everybody is wrong, and everybody is confused. At long last! Now it's time to have some fun.
We're far from the first people to have figured this out. The British Library has preserved texts from people living hundreds of years ago who realised exactly that. Some of our favourites that we explored in the sessions are John Taylor's 1647 pamphlet The World Turn'd Upside Down (feathers ready to put in your hats when you read this one), Edward Lear's limericks and much much more, and a curious fellow calling himself Lewis Carroll who doodled a few silly little stories about a girl named Alice… Boat trip, anyone…?
Indeed, that fateful boat trip on which Carroll made up the first stories set in what would eventually become known as Wonderland, one of the world's most famous realms of nonsense, happened in July 1862 - around 160 years before we started designing this project. Carroll wrote in his diary that he planned to finish the book by Christmas that November: exactly 160 years before our group first met. But making it absolutely perfect nonsense took him until February 1863: exactly 160 years before we presented our masterpieces of nonsense to the group's wider families and staff of the
British Library, Centre 404, and our other partners Writerz n Scribez.
We started every session by taking a fact from the 'real' world, and changing it to fit our nonsense alternative reality. Over the 8 weeks, we completed our own nonsense alphabet. Each of the kids wrote their own limerick, and each of the families took on a different animal for our version of Lear's story of the families of the Lake Pipple-Popple (or 'Shimmer-Shimmer' in our version) - with a whole new set of mischiefs through which the big animals discovered that their rules aren't so sensible after all. Inspired by Carroll, we wrote homophone and picture poems, and of course throughout all of our writings were accompanied by illustration - because as Alice would say, what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations? We even made our own white rabbit ears, and clay shapes
capturing our stories to put in our family jars. Lots of new words were made up - with the help of musical instrument sounds that we 'translated' into human speak. Drums and whistles also helped us a lot when it came to writing our own protest song, bewailing all the foolish things we're told to do like cleaning our room, limiting our chocolate and eating too much cabbage.
From the lad who could recite everything Lear and Carroll had ever written from the second he walked into the first session, to the little girl who started too shy to speak but acted her heart out in the final sharing, and the many who found their creative voices through writing, drawing, sculpting, or play, all the kids absolutely shone at several points. And that was exactly the point: creating opportunities for them to be unapologetically themselves, and be appreciated and congratulated for it. Parents got to see their kids' unique brilliance lauded for what it is, and some reported feeling they came out with more tools for communicating with them.
We think this sentence sums up the effect we were so pleased to achieve perfectly:
"Thank you so much for a lovely phase in our lives, the boys really enjoyed it and we felt so at ease and accepted, which can be tricky as a SEN family."
And this, that one participant said was the main thing he learned, the one and only lesson we wanted to make sure everyone received:
"That everything here has to be nonsense."
Thank you so much to Centre 404, Writerz n Scribez and the British Library for making this project the perfectly ridiculous experience that it was. Who knows, maybe in 160 years' time, another group will be taking inspiration from our masterpieces…
Meanwhile, make sure you sign up to the British Library Learning newsletter: they hold events that you and your families will not want to miss.