A Q&A with our SEND Schools’ Illustrator in Residence Lily Ash Sakula

We chatted to our current Schools’ Illustrator in Residence about their work with students with severe disabilities.


  • Education

Who are you working with?

I’m working with students, aged 5 to 18, in the pathway with the most complex support needs at John Chilton School, a SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) School based in Ealing.

What are the challenges?

The main challenge is the wide variety of needs in each classroom.

Some children are non-verbal, which limits our communication; others have low dexterity, so holding a brush or drawing figuratively can be impossible; others have cognitive processing disorders, which mean focusing on a particular task or following instructions is a struggle.

Each of these needs require different adaptations, and so meeting them all in one class demands extreme flexibility and a willingness  to rip up all your plans and start again several times in each lesson.

Another challenge, is designing activities that are both ability- and age-appropriate – this often means differentiating delivery between reception and sixth form students while ensuring activities are accessible to all students.

How do you approach these challenges?

My approach has been extreme flexibility, and an acceptance that I am learning as I go. I’m not precious about my plans and am willing to be led by the students themselves and their support staff.

I also attempt to distribute the focus over a range of senses, rather than prioritising the visual. For example, we play with touch, using materials with a range of feelings and textures; sound, so I always have music playing in my sessions; and movement, including regular dancing breaks.

All my students seem to love dancing including those with mobility issues: last week one girl was doing wheelies in her wheelchair to Bob Marley!

The residency also gives me the opportunity to try each workshop, with each age group, in a variety of settings, so by the end of the day I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I still hit wide of the mark and no one knows what’s going on, but I reassure myself that this is all part of the process!

Some hugely helpful advice that my programme mentor Jhinuk Sarkar gave me is that when someone is struggling with a task or getting frustrated or bored, our instinct is to step in and try and fix it – but sometimes it’s better to step back and give the child the space and time to be in that moment, explore their materials, listen to music, stare into space and work things out in their own time. This also gives me the space to slow down my own expectations and allow the process to develop in an organic way.

Tell us about your sessions with the students.

In one session, we experimented with mixing colours and trying out different brush textures. First we used red, yellow and blue cellophane, putting them together in  different combinations and looking through them to change the colours of the room. We talked about how seeing everything in blue or orange or red made us feel.

Then I gave the students red, yellow and blue paint and asked them to see how many different colours they could make and to try cover their entire piece of white paper. Some mixed the paint with their hands, others rolled marbles through the paint, others explored a range of brushes and sponges.

At the end I had about 40 paintings with loads of different textures and colours. I took them home and cut them into simple shapes (circles, squares, rectangles, almonds).

The following session, we talked about the different shapes you have in faces and tried out sticking different shapes to our own faces to see what fitted best. We looked at Kimmy Cantrell and Picasso to explore the different ways artists can arrange a face.

Students chose their favourite shapes and colours and stuck them on the black card to make their own faces. Some wanted to make themselves realistically, others enjoyed feeling the stickiness of the glue and wanted to stick down as many shapes as possible, so there’s a wide range!

I encouraged them to experiment with contrasting colours, for example for pupils on the eyes. And then  they started tearing up the shapes I made to make their own facial features. One child tore up lots of little pieces to add their freckles, one cut the shapes into strips to make hair and another added scary-looking teeth, totally unprompted! A pupil I have who often struggles to focus made a double-decker face!

At the end of each session we hung all the faces on the wall and talked about what we liked most about them. 

We have also been playing with claymation, first building up some plasticine skills by exploring different techniques including rolling, bashing, smoothing, twisting, poking and pinching.

We made – and then gleefully squished – different objects that I brought along including leaves, shells and a chocolate bar (made of plastic, much to everyone’s disappointment!).

Then we made characters starting with simple shapes for heads, eyes, mouths, bodies, before adding on more complex ones like hair and jewellery. Many children made their mobility aids, including wheelchairs, walkers and chest compressors.

We animated the characters in small groups using iPads with the Stop Motion Studio app. Although the layout is very intuitive, many of the buttons are too small for those with low levels of dexterity, so animating has definitely been the most challenging part of the process so far.

However, students have enjoyed seeing their characters move, and many got into the rhythm of animating after a few goes.

What will the final work look like?

The final work will be a film of everyone’s animation and illustrations, with a voiceover from the Sixth Form students interviewing each other about their school and a soundtrack that we are composing with Years 8 and 9 in collaboration with the music teacher at the school.

I put together a rough cut over the half term to show students and get their input on where to go next. Seeing their work on the big screen has really inspired them, and they have a million ideas for more animation in the second half of term. There will also be an exhibition of the collages and models as well as photos of the process in the school atrium.

What’s the impact of the residency on the students, the teachers and on you?

For the students, I think seeing themselves and their disabilities reflected in the work – making their faces, modelling their wheelchairs, recognising their voices – has been hugely exciting and engaging.

The art lead at the school told me that the complex needs pathway that I’m working with rarely get programmes specifically aimed at them, so having this opportunity to see themselves and have their experience centred has been really important for them.

Many of the teachers have enjoyed the workshops and said they’ve got lots of ideas for activities they’d like to try with their students. Animating has been especially popular, as few had had the opportunity to try this before.

The teaching assistants have offered me invaluable advice on how to adapt activities for particular students, and their expertise and willingness to get stuck in has been amazing as well as vital in making any of this possible.

As for me, the impact has been huge. Having never worked exclusively with children with complex needs before, I’ve had to learn on the job.

My workshops are definitely better from getting used to being in a space without trying to control everything or have everyone stick to a schedule.

Slowing down, and breaking familiar processes into their most basic parts has forced me to reassess practices that have become automatic, which has given me a new approach to my own work.

I have also been thinking about how focusing on a sensory process over any kind of result can be seen as an adaptation to the students’ abilities – but it also has a deeper value when you consider that many of the children in the school have life limiting conditions.

Putting myself in the position of the young people I’m working with (to the extent that this is possible), thinking about what it feels like for me when something is too hard, or when my mood is low or I have no energy, has been key to building the empathetic connection needed to make collaborative work.

Want to empower your students through illustration? Find out about our in-school illustration projects and workshops.

Our Schools’ Illustrator in Residence programme is made possible through the generous support of the John Lyons Charity.