Art Therapy and Autism

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

Art therapy promotes mental and emotional growth through art making. Art therapy's goal is building life skills. As well as addressing deficits and problem behaviors, and promoting healthy self-expression. Clients are encouraged to explore and express themselves using art crafting attractive artwork is not the goal (though it may be a happy by-product).

Art presents an Alternative to Verbal Communication

Art therapy for Autism is a natural fit to help people express themselves . Verbal self-expression and language is often especially difficult. One person with autism writes “I just couldn’t get my words out. It was like a big stutter… Screaming was the only way I could communicate.. ” Art offers a way for people who have trouble “speaking their mind” with words to express themselves directly, without words. People with autism are often highly visual thinkers, and many report that they “think in pictures”. Expressing feelings and ideas through images is very natural for such people. And can be a welcome relief from the daily struggle to use words effectively. Art therapy for Autism children can allow them to express themselves where words can not. Making the kids feel heard.

Art therapy can help with social skills

Autistic people also tend to struggle with social issues, such as interpreting tone of voice and facial expression. They may feel uncomfortable relating to others. One-on-one interactions, such as conversations, are often extremely intimidating and stressful. For such people, working alongside a therapist can be much more comfortable. As the two share focus on the client’s art-making, a powerful bond can be forged. Without the initial need for direct, face-to-face interaction.

Art Therapy for Autism patients can also be a wonderful facilitator in forming connections with peers. Cooperation, turn-taking, respecting differences and other social skills can all be practiced in an enjoyable, natural setting. People with autism may also struggle to comprehend other people’s perspectives; looking at a peer’s artwork offers a concrete way to “see” another person’s point of view. Working together on group projects fosters cooperation, teamwork and a sense of acceptance.

Art Therapy can address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Art therapy is ideally suited for addressing issues like sensory processing disorder (SPD). A pervasive problem in autism which contributes to a lot of difficult emotions and behaviors. Seemingly innocuous sensations, such as the texture of carpet, fluorescent lighting, crunchy foods may be irritating, to people with autism. One client said it was like nails on a chalkboard. When overstimulated, people with autism may become agitated, or simply “shut down”. Countries over the world are using art for kids. 

One of the most common goals in Art Therapy for Autism people is to increase tolerance for unpleasant stimuli. While channeling self-stimulating behavior into more creative activity. That they might otherwise avoid when they are part of a fun art process. A child may find they can cope with handling slimy, paper, when it’s part of a paper mache project. Repeatedly confronting the stimuli they prefer to avoid helps to desensitize kids to them. Making it more bearable when they encounter these sensations in daily life. A child who learned to deal with paper mache, might find that handling slimy hand soap was no longer unpleasant.

Sensory fixations are another common feature of autism. Some people may stare in rapt attention at their fingers as they flick them back and forth. Or endlessly twisting tiny strips of paper. Repetitively engaging in such self-stimulating behaviors (or “stimming”) can make people with autism stand out, preventing them from interacting with others. On the other hand, these sensations may provide some calming, soothing feelings when the person is agitated. In Art Therapy for Autism, the goal is to channel non-functional or inappropriate stimming into socially acceptable, creative outlets.

Compulsive shredding of paper turned into beautiful collages

An autistic child was disciplined at school for his compulsive habit of shredding paper. When taught to use his love of shredding to make collage, the child embraced this new outlet. Today, Grant Manier wins awards for his striking, realistic collages. Made with thousands of torn strips of paper and other shredded media. Another successful artist, obsessed with twisting bits of paper, now makes art using twist ties. Art can help turn a behavior that once caused social problems into a form of self expression and enjoyment.

In addition to improving sensory, social and emotional functioning, art therapy is an excellent treatment for autism. It is inherently reinforcing. Kids get enjoyment, stress relief and a boost to their self confidence. From tackling art projects or simply exploring art materials. That they are practicing life skills while doing so may not enter their minds. There are many examples of art helping all kids. 

Art therapy for autism is unique but the results have been proven. It helps mitigate symptom, while also channeling autistic behaviors into an expressive, creative outlet. It promotes communication, emotional growth and sensory integration while also fostering social interaction in a fun setting.

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