Art Therapy for Autism


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Individuals with autism have innate visual prowess, as I discussed in a previous article. Given that children with autism are so visually oriented, it makes perfect sense to engage them in art activities, be it formally with an art therapist, casually in other classes or at home. 

Because children on the autism spectrum struggle with communication, traditional psychotherapy is not a viable option for them, but art therapy is. Art therapists report that children with autism who engage in one-on-one sessions show an improved ability to imagine and think symbolically, enhanced ability to recognize and respond to facial expressions, new ability to manage sensory issues such as a range of texture and greater fine motor skills.

I used to teach art to preschoolers at community centers. The classes were educational in nature and centered around a theme such as dinosaurs. I had them make things to illustrate what they were learning, like paper mache giant eggs and clay replicas of foot-long pointed teeth. The comment I heard from most parents was that they couldn’t believe their child’s focus and intensity while in my class. They marveled that their child was capable of such intentionality and that they could sustain it for a whole hour. 

Several of the students came with diagnoses such as ADD or autism, another had been too frenetic and kicked out ballet class, but you wouldn’t know it – all of them coalesced as a group of dedicated youngsters excited by their art projects. The group became close and the children often went to the playground together after class. 

Art demands a level of organization. Children must set up their supplies and clean up afterwards. The many textures are a sensory feast, and for kids with autism, innately therapeutic. I fondly remember how much my sons loved making homemade clay, the feeling of kneading the warm dough, then folding in the colors. I kept easels set up on the porch and they painted nearly everyday. Doing art fostered pride in themselves and their creations.

As individuals who struggle with communication, art gives children on the autism spectrum a powerful means to channel their inner life and experience. At home, you could have your child make his or her own guide to feelings by having them draw pictures of “Happy," “Sad," “Scared," “Mad" or “Frustrated” faces. Laminate or otherwise protect the pictures and have them on hand for your child to identify how he or she is feeling when words cannot. Buy them a sketch book and encourage them to keep a daily art journal. Creative self expression in all its myriad forms is going to be a key to enhancing your child’s well-being. 

“Drawing Autism” is a collection of artwork by individuals with autism coupled with interviews of the artists, with a forward by Temple Grandin. It’s a powerful book and in reading it one comes away with an even deeper appreciation of that superior autistic visual ability we’ve been hearing about. More information on the book can be found here:  http://markbattypublisher.com/books/drawing-autism/ 

Additionally, an organization that focuses exclusively on art therapy for autism is Philadelphia-based HeARTS for Autism. They are a grass-roots, volunteer organization and can be found at http://www.heartsforautism.org .

24 Responses to Art Therapy for Autism

  1. Robin says:

    Wonderful article! And thank you for the reference. Art bridges hearts, so what our kids and parents create in the free monthly programs becomes part of community education programs, art exhibits, and advocacy outreaches. Then there are the other Arts: music, movement, design and building, etc which are used to enrich their personal & family experience and expression. Good stuff for sure!

  2. Susan says:

    thanks writing…Susan Moffitt

  3. sharon herriot says:

    I have had a very different experience in working with art psychotherapy and children on the autistic spectrum and would like to offer a word of caution to any therapists expecting art to be wholeheartedly embraced by these clients.
    My experience has been that concrete thinking, a lack of symbolic thought and a reduced imaginative capacity has left my autistic clients baffled by art therapy. The art making has had to be very directed to ‘make sense’ to these clients and the idea of creating something ‘from their heads’ is anathema to them. I have often had to retreat into a more formal, language based treatment programme as the art making has been rejected.
    This is only my experience with my autistic clients, but I have started to be of the opinion that art therapy is probably not best placed to support children with this label (and it is just a label…there may be many different presentations and abilities under that banner). The lack of playfulness and imagination, which is so vital to art therapy can be strained or absent for these children…and asking them to engage playfully with the process causes more confusion than it solves.
    I have also found that the ‘in the moment’-ness of this client group has made reflection on feelings extremely difficult…once an emotion has passed it has gone and cannot be looked back on. My clients could (just about) recognise and express the emotion they were having in this moment, but could never imagine what it had been like to have a different emotion earlier, yesterday, last week, last year….
    Please do not think I wish to dismiss the lovely article above, I just wished to add my very different experience into the mix.

  4. Robin says:

    @Sharon and Susan – I should offer a clarification: We do not “do” art therapy per se. We use the Arts therapeutically, ie, we allow the process to unfold with each child. My experience with over 300 kids at this point, in a recreation vs clinical approach, is very few “lack the imagination” that is thought to be true of this disorder, especially if you are dealing with the Spectrum vs just the profoundly effected. It is a different way of imagining and by using nonintrusive, detached from outcome approach and facilitation, it seems to allow for something of value for that child to occur. Our volunteers are trained to not be fixed on the product but rather to observe and encourage the process. There may be sensory components that overwhelm the child or they are used to intense interventions all the time, so they are intelligent enough to know to just pull back until they feel safe enough to express. The other side of the coin – some kids are not challenged enough and there are no real expectations for them. School is a sitter service…we have had some interesting spontaneous creative expression with those kids. Another piece is that play is exactly what they do need, so we model playful interactions, in an experience that is not just about sitting down to do art but involves social pairing and peer mentoring, group games, Yoga and then the project. We get about 80% compliance with volunteer support. Then there are those who need to do something different, so we give them choices and then watch what they do. From there, I see if there is a bridge activity that could connect and generalize the preferred activity to what the groups was doing. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. I think for our program, what distinguishes us is our understanding that we exist to support all the work everyone else is doing for the kids…in our venue some real interesting things happen…and for some parents they would say miraculous when they see what their child does do. We think it’s just the magical light of that child gets to shine in a fun environment which empowers and encourages the child to be themselves/

  5. Susan says:

    Wow. Thank you for your comments. My main reaction is that a great deal of flexibility and ingenuity is required to address such a broad spectrum of children who have autism, and that the benefit of art is experiential.

    Sharon I know what you mean when you say these children don’t review and reflect, but it really isn’t a weakness, it’s just an alternate way of processing experience. It doesn’t mean the value of an experience is lost or a lesson is unlearned, only that the child won’t project from the moment into the past and future.

    Robin, your group sounds amazing. I wish you were based in Seattle so I could work for you.

    Again, thank you both,

    Susan Moffitt

  6. Jayson Kim says:

    Brilliant article…I absolutely agree, art demands a level of organization to be meaningful.

  7. Susan says:

    Thank you Jayson!

    Susan Moffitt

  8. Misty says:

    My son Jacob is a verbal autistic child,and he loves to draw.He draws everything he sees.If he can’t tell you in words what he’s talking about,he will draw it for you.The detail he puts in his drawings is amazing,and everything has to be just like he wants it before he will put the pencil down.

  9. Susan says:

    That is very cool indeed, a skill and a strength. -SM

  10. sharon herriot says:

    ooops…feel I have caused some upset with my comments….apologies that was never my intention, I just wanted to share my experience.
    I don’t want to give the impression that those on the spectrum are lacking in some way or have a weakness (susan), just that my way of delivering art psychotherapy has not been well received. Perhaps this has been that my work is focussed around specific trauma (regardless of ability/disability), generally bereavement or domestic violence, where supporting the client to think about that experience and their emotions related to it is the general focus. Also i am limited to brief work (10 sessions usually).
    I have always tried to respond to the needs of my clients and not pushing art-making has often been part of that response when my clients have really not responded to them, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am dogmatic and inflexible.
    I am very interested in exploring work with this client group and would be interested to find out more about how your sessions are run…I am always up for nicking new ideas and integrating them into my own.
    i wondered if you had any film of your sessions (??possibly not appropriate due to confidentiality) but it would be amazing to actually see a session.
    Tis good to get the discussions going and I hope others are able to accept my experience as part of the wider picture…without judgement :/

  11. Susan says:

    Thanks for your clarification. It seemed that you were a psychotherapist who uses art rather than an art therapist, and that art wasn’t fitting into your traditional modality. I guess you did touch a nerve, as my children with autism are wildly imaginative. And one of my twins wants art to be concrete and not from his head – yet art still helped him express himself as a logical thinker. And I have had to explain countless times to people not to have my son “talk it out” when he’s had a meltdown, but simply move on. I think that’s my single biggest battle with teachers, actually.

    I’m sorry if you felt judged, I think you were unintentionally provocative, but that it is leading to an interesting discussion.

    I can see that working on a specific trauma over a short span of time is very different that an open ended commitment of improving the quality of an autistic person’s life through art.

    Thanks for writing back…Susan

  12. Pam Ullmann says:

    Hello Susan,

    Thank you for recognizing art therapy!

    I am an art therapist specializing in this population….and I beleive in the power of creative expression. As stated above, there may be certain individuals that will not make entire use of the modality, but there are “adaptive” methods and approaches that work wonders! I beleive and love what I do and invite you to follow my blog too……http://colorsofplay.blogspot.com

    Thanks

    Pam

  13. Susan says:

    Thanks. I’ll definitely check out your website.

  14. Shelby says:

    Susan, I am wondering if you can help me out. I am trying to find a good art class for a high school student on the autism spectrum in Seattle. Can you recommend any?

  15. Kimberly says:

    Hello!

    I am very excited to see this article and these types of discussions about Art and Autism. I graduated just a year ago with my masters in art therapy and mental health counseling. In my first year out I have been working with children on the autism spectrum. It has been a challenge for me to figure out how to adapt what I learned in school about art therapy in order to help my clients. It is inspiring to hear of other art therapist and people who understand the power of art to help and heal ALL people! I truly believe that the more I learn about Autism the more I will be able to bring in art therapy as an important intervention for helping!

    Thank you!!

    Kim-the newbie art therapist :)

  16. Susan says:

    Thank you for writing and good luck with your practice. I know it takes a while to tumble to how to work with children on the spectrum, and you seem well on your way.

    Best,
    Susan Moffitt

  17. Dana Whiddon says:

    I want to thank you for your article and for bringing awareness of the impact that art therapy can have for this population. I agree that art is a wonderful way for these children, who have such difficulties with language, to learn to communicate. I am an art therapist with extensive experience working with children and adolescents across the spectrum.
    I also agree that imagination and symbolic thinking are important goals for these children and adolescence, as this is where many of them tend to get “stuck.” From a developmental perspective, I would like to add that we need to start with sharing attention and engagement. These are foundation skills that promote higher level abstract thinking. Art media is a great way to practice these skills and any way that they can help a child participate in a shared experience is fantastic!
    I do want to offer a word of caution: Children with Autism do not as a rule have “innate visual prowess” In fact, some of them can be very visually overstimulated by artmaking. For others, their visual system is their strongest system and they can access this system as a way to better understand their worlds. I like the quote “If you’ve met one child with autism… you’ve met one child with autism!”
    Again, thank you for your work and I look forward to future publications.
    If you would like to connect with me on twitter, I am @engagingart
    Warm Regards,
    Dana Whiddon

  18. Susan says:

    By “innate visual prowess” I was referring to my previous article (http://www.autismkey.com/study-confirms-enhanced-visual-abilities-for-individuals-with-autism/), it is was not to infer that children with autism are inherently more skilled at art making. Of course the autism spectrum is vast and like snowflakes, no two children are the same.

    I appreciate you speaking from your experience and sharing that with us.

    Susan Moffitt

  19. Robin says:

    Hello Susan and all – It is great to see this interest and dialogue of “art” as a therapeutic option for ASD children. @ Sharon I think your comments were perfect because they are exactly your experience as well as others here in the Philadelphia area who have expressed their frustrations and confusions trying to use this creative aspect while “doing” therapy with the Spectrum population. So your conversation becomes an invitation for each of us to be open – anything is possible, but our modalities, credentials and training condition us to think in certain ways, thereby expect certain outcomes, and possibly even “impose” what we think would be good for the person dealing with a condition.

    Again, I am not an art therapist, nor am I an OT or Speech therapist, or even a behavioral specialist…I am a Mom who saw that what I did with my son made a difference. Teachers saw it too and asked me to try it with the kids. I am one of those “midnight PhD Spectrum Moms” who spent countless hours reading, researching, pondering the what ifs’ and how to’s. My studies and observations led me to what is now 1500+ hours of trainings and certifications in various approaches to help these children and their families. I used my background as a minister and a biz person to organize volunteers to create these programs. Ultimately, we had no “product” or specific strategy to deliver…it was more about creating venue and opportunity for the children to be themselves as we facilitated interaction with the program and people. Meanwhile, our parents program used care of the caregiver holistic approaches and creative expression for the parents to destress, express and then move towards greater ease of acceptance of their situation and lifestyle as affected by autism.

    We do not promote a “fixing” mentality…more of a loving the child as is and loving yourself as is (let go of the guilt and powerlessness) and from this calmer space, you are better prepared to seek the therapies that might improve the quality of life for the child and family. Empowerment and encouragement…and simply daring to gratefully acknowledge the joy in each day. Autism can cause such chaos and many feel such despair, it is imperative we offer the other perspective and see the beauty, even when it doesn’t always look so pretty.

    I have some issues with the quote about “if you meet one person with autism”…simply because this is true of every human being with a condition (or without.) I have had schools use this as a way to NOT create improved group/classroom programming because they can limit approaches utilized under the veil of IEP and individuality.There will always be key things that make the spectrum person spectrum, hence the diagnosis. But the treatment plans are confounding if we do not look at the whole person and provide multidisciplinary strategies.

    I would invite those of you are are the OTs, Art therapists, etc to look to the local parents groups and see how you might create inclusive community based programs to provide simple fun programming, just so that the family has more support, and the child more opportunity to integrate and express.

    We do Yoga and art for the kids and families – nice mix – yet it is not so much about the “thing” you think you are doing…it is about the allowing and being process. We are human beings and our culture focuses on the human doing part mostly. We treat our children because we have a fear of what they won’t be able to “do.” In programs like ours, you let people “be”…allow flow…you still have structure for safety and sanity’s sake mind you, yet the vehicle of the ARTs (all of them, not just visual) find the heart of a person, and maybe its just for a glimpse, or maybe they create something amazing, or maybe they have a breakthrough, the venue of creative expression definitely touches the soul. From here, we can all celebrate the magic and beauty of each child, regardless of condition.
    Thank you for allowing me to share,
    Robin
    http://www.HeartsforAutism.org
    http://www.HappyHeartsYoga.com

  20. Dana Whiddon says:

    Hi Robin, I totally agree with your approach and appreciate your statements on the creative arts. The thoughts that I connect with most are 1)the importance of the family being involved and 2)to not approach treatment in terms of “fixing”
    I am trained in the DIR/Floortime methodology and embrace it because of the way that it looks at the whole child and the importance of the family component. I understand the quote “if you meet one child with autism… you’ve met one child with autism” to mean exactly what you were saying- that we must look at the whole child and not generalizations. I wrote it in response to the “innate visual prowess” comment (please see Susan’s response to my concern). I see it as a challenge to everyone… that you must tailor the program to the individual child and his/her unique needs because what works for one child may not work for another. Please do let me know if I have misunderstood, I am interested in your response and reactions. I am excited to have stumbled upon this blog and appreciate the honest and thoughtful discussions.
    Warm Regards,
    Dana

  21. Susan says:

    Robin and Dana, Thank you both for sharing so much of yourselves and your perspectives! I too love the inclusion of the caregiver in your program.

    As far as the “if you met one child…” quote I believe the sentiment is useful to invoke when someone generalizes about all children with autism. I haven’t heard it in a dismissive way, and that would make me bristle.

    Again, thanks…SM

  22. Monica Choi says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thank you for the article!
    Articles such as this are difficult to come across and is very helpful to me in ensuring myself this is the career path I want to take.

    I would love to help children or youth in trauma or with disabilities through art therapy here in Australia one day. :)

  23. Susan says:

    more power to you!

    SM

  24. art for kids says:

    I savor, lead to I discovered exactly what I used to be taking a look for.
    You’ve ended my four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day.

    Bye

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