Art Therapy: What it is and How it Helps Children on the Autism Spectrum

Art Therapy: What it is and How it Helps Children on the Autism Spectrum

Art therapy dates back as far as the 1930’s and is an established mental health profession that uses art and art materials as a form of communication, or symbolic language, to improve the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.  It is a typically preferred mental health service for those persons who are experiencing difficulty expressing themselves verbally either because of grief or loss, if there is a mind-body connection to the trauma such as PTSD or sexual abuse, or if there is an inability for words to come naturally as with children or persons with a communication disorder.

Many people seek out art therapy because of the tangible results that are produced in a session.  Rather than having their words “disappear” into the air, their “words” are captured in pencil, paint, and sculpture.  These images of ourselves can be brought out, brought back to life, and dissected in each session between the client and the art therapist.  They are not forgotten.  Art therapy is also sought after by those people who purely enjoy exploring and expressing themselves through various art media and finding creative solutions to their issues.  There is no requirement for “talent” in art therapy; only a willingness to delve into unchartered territories.

In the last decade, autism has been making the news consistently.  What was once a mystery has now become a household name all over the world.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children in the United States are being diagnosed with autism and 1 in 54 children are male.  With these statistics doubling since the CDC began tracking children with autism, it is now officially declared that autism is an epidemic in the United States.  In addition to statistics doubling, many families are feeling the stress of this diagnosis in several areas in their lives:  from juggling doctor and therapy appointments to complement their work schedules, trying to make time for their spouse and other children at home, negotiating with insurance companies to cover services, looking over IEP documents, providing structure and making adaptations to their child’s day, and the list goes on.  It is apparent that our families with children on the autism spectrum are in great need of support in more ways than one.  Because of this, many schools, agencies, and clinics have begun to take notice and provide more creative supports for families and their children.  Some of these supports are:  music therapy, pet therapy, and art therapy.

So, what does an art therapist bring to our children on the autism spectrum?  How does art therapy help them to flourish?  According to Nicole Martin, art therapist and author of Art as an Early Intervention Tool for Children with Autism (2009),  many children on the autism spectrum find art making to be beneficial for them because of their intense visual and tactile sensory needs,  disregulation, often non-verbal nature, and need for more visual, concrete, hands-on therapies.  Martin (2009) also developed in her art therapy practice six treatment goals that are addressed and incorporated into the sessions.

These goals are:  (1) imagination and/or abstract thinking deficits, (2) sensory regulation and integration, (3) emotions and self-expression, (4) developmental growth, (5) recreation and leisure skills, and (6) visual-spatial deficits.  These goals are determined through observations, assessments, and collaboration with the families and, perhaps, other professionals.  But, before goals are even determined, building a solid foundation between the child and art therapist is paramount.  It is the relationship, the therapeutic rapport, that builds comfort, trust, and respect which enables the goals to be produced and carried through.  Rapport building develops by listening to the child, creating art work with them to build communication and friendship, remaining calm when they are disregulated, giving genuine praise, and creating activities they can feel successful in.

As the African Proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” we can see that our children, especially those on the spectrum, need many caring and talented people to enrich their lives and support them.  By incorporating art therapy into their daily living, creativity can spark the flame, imagination can blossom, and a new sense of self can be formed.   We find that what is uncovered can then be understood in the world of a child with autism.