Art Therapy for children on the Autism Spectrum
The importance of visual art therapy as a therapeutic tool to use with children on the Autism Spectrum.
These days there is an abundance of services, therapies, tools and resources to use within a therapeutic context, whilst working with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Underpinning these services is a large amount of research that reveals the impact this has on the children. In the last ten years, there has been a large amount of research completed in regards to the effectiveness of using Art Therapy with this client population. The results have been outstanding.
Art Therapy is a the method of using creative expression to regulate emotions, provide insight into things that have always been perplexing, build relationships, communicate to others and improve the overall mental health and wellbeing of a client.
Clients who have been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, can display an array of behaviours that will vary from child to child. It is called a spectrum for a reason, whilst some clients may be non-verbal and require the use of ear muffs to block out loud noises in order to concentrate, other children may find it difficult to integrate themselves within their social circle or community. The usual signs that a child is on the spectrum may include: difficulty recognising emotions or facial expressions, repetitive behaviours or movements, difficulty regulating emotions, holding eye contact, or understanding change.
There are a great deal of reasons that Art Therapy is an effective therapeutic modality to use with this client group. Here they are:
Art Therapy provides a mode of communication that doesn’t revolve around verbal communication
Clients with autism may find even the most simple communication tasks or interactions difficult to understand and anxiety provoking. This is especially prevalent when trying to communicate verbally. Art Therapy offers means of a means expression that isn’t accompanied by the set of communication skills necessary to maintain a conversation and effectively get the message across. Ideas, beliefs and experiences may be communicated in a way that has never been able to happen before; providing a unique outlet and method of connection.
Children with autism often think in terms of visuals
There is a wide range of research today surrounding the use of visuals (pictures to explain situations, emotion cards, or visual timetables) as a way of effectively communicating with children who have autism. This is believed to be because these children often think in pictures, meaning that the expression of ideas and feelings through a creative outlet is something that often comes more naturally to them.
Art therapy can be a tool for the senses
Clients on the spectrum usually have a set of sensory preferences, which relates to the way their brain perceives information from their five senses. People who aren’t on the spectrum also have sensory preferences, some of us love going for dinner in quite, warm places, whether as other love the bright lights and loud music. For children with ASD, these preferences often lead to an increase in difficult emotions and behaviours. An intolerance to sound, sight, taste, smell, and touch can often lead to children shying away from lots of environments, or acting out emotionally or aggressively. Attending a supermarket or getting dressed in the morning may become an anxiety provoking ordeal, because the way their brain and then body interprets the information is like an alarm. This is called a sensory overload for children who are ‘sensory avoiders’.
On the other hand, clients may have a set of sensory preferences that increases their brains need for sensory input. This is where you will see a child walking around flapping their arms, touching things in the external environment consistently, or making sound for the sake of sound. This is called a sensory seeking behaviour, where their brain is telling their body that there needs to be more happening both externally and internally in order to stay calm. A behaviour called a self- stimulatory behaviour can develop, where the child learns to independently cope with the anxiety caused by their sensory preferences. This isn’t always necessarily a destructive or dangerous behaviour, although it can be. Children may be seen chewing nails until their fingers bleed, spinning around compulsively in busy social environments, or banging their head on the floor. This isn’t a way to act out or be ‘naughty’; this is the child’s attempt at calming themselves down. Just like we sometimes need a warm bath to calm down or a lie down in a quiet room to become regulated, children on the spectrum also need tools and activities to regulate themselves independently. Art Therapy is a brilliant way of providing this regulation.
Art therapy can take the pressure off socialising
For people that don’t experience confusion or difficulty when socialising, we often forget the amount of verbal and non verbal skills it takes to maintain a conversation, and remain calm and composed whilst doing it. For children on the spectrum, the group of skills necessary to communicate can often present as overwhelming. Interpreting voice tone and speed, understanding facial expressions and cues, picking up on subtle hints and all the while concentrating on what you want to say and how to say that properly is a complex process. This is accompanied by the sensory preferences that a child on the spectrum often has, such as avoiding auditory sensory information (loud noises), or seeking out sensation such as touch (this is where the use of fidget spinners was introduced. Art Therapy processes, provide a safe, comfortable space to work with a therapist in a way that takes the pressure of the complex activity of face to face verbal communication. Working alongside a therapist helps to take that pressure off, whilst the two focus on the client’s art making rather than the verbal conversation. This can allow a powerful bond of trust to form between therapist and client, something that may have previously been scarce in the client’s like.
Art therapy can help children to connect with each other
Whilst creating, children have the space, time and safe environment to practice skills that they may have previously been to anxious to/ not given the chance to in our hustle and bustle world. Skills like co-operating, sharing, communicating respect and praise, accepting compliments, and connecting through common interests, can all be practice whilst creating art in a group setting. The visual representation of art work also allows clients a medium to see how another child may perceive their world; a unique visual story that can build bridges between children that may have not connected otherwise. Group art projects can also provide children with a sense of community where they may have previously felt isolated.
Art Therapy allows them the time and space to participate in something enjoyable, and to create something to be proud of
As well as improving sensory, social and emotional functioning, art therapy is also a great means of positive reinforcement. The children have an outlet to enjoy themselves and relax, and are able to visually experience what they produce during this process. For a child that experiences difficulty across what may be all areas of their life, allowing them to produce something that they are proud of is a practice that cannot be underestimated.
Tessa Lloyd is the founder of Our Mindful Youth and practices as a Paediatric Occupational Therapist. She incorporates mindfulness based art making within her therapy support sessions for children on the Autism Spectrum, and has experienced first had the impact this has on these children.