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Art Therapy as a Support for Autism

“You mean I haven’t tried everything yet?”

The relief in her tone was palpable, her eyes intense. She happened upon my table at a resource fair. As she spoke, she echoed the stories of countless parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Exhausted from the therapy schedule and disheartened by slow and incremental progress, she was intrigued and wanted to learn more about how art therapy could help her child.

In the hopes of supporting the development of their children, parents of children with ASD access many therapies. Treatment of ASD can be an exhausting and overwhelming process that can bring about resistance in the child. While there is no one clear solution to the complex array of symptoms and varying abilities of children with ASD, art therapy can be an effective treatment because it is fun and engaging. Through the use of paint, clay, or markers, an art therapist can facilitate opportunities for growth in the following areas that often affect ASD:

  • Understanding Emotions and Social Cues
  • Connection
  • Communication
  • Appropriate Personal Expression
  • Self-Esteem

An art therapist’s training attunes him or her to facilitate an art experience that meets children with Autism where they are at as individuals. Structuring a session to leverage strengths and decrease resistance, maximizes success. The therapist offers guidance and feedback that enhances learning and supports reaching goals in a given area.

Understanding Emotions and Social Cues

Art therapists can support children with ASD who have difficulty managing their emotions and connecting socially. Art processes can support gains in emotional vocabulary, coping skills, and appropriate personal expression. Social cues such as facial expressions and body language are often difficult for children with Autism to understand. Art can make exploration of these concepts engaging and fun. Social rehearsing through puppet creations can foster mastery of a particular social skill. Repetition of a concept through role-playing before a social event can do wonders for decreasing anxiety and increasing social successes. Exploring a social situation through comic creation can be a non-threatening way to help a child with Autism reflect and better understand a confusing interaction.

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Connection

Eye contact and mirroring body language and facial expressions are some examples of human behaviors that foster a sense of connection. Individuals with Autism commonly experience delays in this area of development. This greatly impacts how he or she navigates the world and ultimately how he or she perceives him or herself. Art therapy techniques can effectively address these areas as well. Through an art activity such as blind contour portrait drawing, an art therapist can help an individual increase the amount of time he or she can sustain eye contact. Gesture drawings, creating pipe cleaner people, and clay sculptures are also engaging ways to facilitate learning about the relationship between body language and emotions. Growth in this area can improve understanding of peers and family members. They can also become building blocks for future learning about appropriate responses to others.

Communication

Reciprocating in conversation is a fundamental skill in verbal communication. The back and forth pattern allows for input and feedback from each conversant. Children with Autism often struggle to maintain conversations. This can be due to developmental delays in the language center of the brain, overwhelm, or both. Overwhelm activates a fight or flight neural response. During fight or flight, the brain shuts down access to the language center. Because the emphasis in art therapy is on making art and not on verbal interaction, overwhelmed clients can relax. Individuals feel seen and ‘heard’ responding to one another using the visual language of art. Art therapy techniques facilitate new opportunities for spontaneous verbal interaction. Through art games, rapport and connection are built. At the same time taking turns when playing a game allows for modeling of back and forth conversational flow. This can become a foundation to build language skills on.

Appropriate Personal Expression

Overwhelm is common in children with Autism.  Differences in how their brains respond to sensory input can cause touch, tastes, smells, and sounds to become triggers for meltdowns. The inherent sensorial nature of art materials can support increasing tolerance to such stimuli. Additionally, the area of the brain that regulates emotions is the same area that processes sensory input. Art therapists can use sensory exposure to develop emotional regulation. Art therapists may also facilitate opportunities for individuals to create their own coping tools. Engaging in the process of making a coping tool can increase the desire to use it. One example is creating a bubble wand out of beads and copper wire. Learning to use calming breaths to cope now has the built-in reward of bubbles. An art therapist can support the child as he or she learns which tools work and which do not.

Self-esteem

Diagnosing Autism exhausts time, money, and emotions. The process involves many professionals and assessments. This takes a toll on families but especially effects the child. Undergoing so many evaluations can leave the impression that “something is wrong with me.” A child who has an awareness of his or her differences may long to be like his or her peers. Through unconditional positive regard, an art therapist can model acceptance for clients no matter where they are in their development. Reinforcing areas of strength can be helpful in restoring positive self-concept. With careful planning and one on one support throughout, a good art therapist sets the client up for success. Awareness of strengths, self-acceptance, and feeling accomplished with every finished artwork are opportunities for self-concept to change. Over time, a child with ASD can learn to embrace their unique qualities.

Summary

Art Therapy can effectively support growth in many areas often affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder. It can be a fun and engaging treatment for children who are resistant and withdrawn. All individuals come into the world with strengths and with weaknesses. A good art therapist can help individuals with Autism recognize their strengths, while at the same time helping them develop areas that will increase their successes and improve their overall quality of life.

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Melissa Ayotte

Melissa Ayotte

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