Autism is widely misunderstood in society. When a child with autism is screaming or yelling in public, they are met with cold, hostile stares, or worse, disparaging comments telling them that they are troublesome or undisciplined. The pervasive stigma that is attached to autism is a big reason why many autistic children never get diagnosed or receive treatment and are left to fall further and further behind their peers. This burden of shame and isolation, along with trouble communicating and understanding non-verbal behavior, prevents autistic children from expressing themselves freely.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired verbal and nonverbal communication skills. ASD covers a wide range of different conditions, so that autism can manifest differently in each individual. ASD includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome, child disintegrative disorder, Rett’s syndrome, and Kanner’s syndrome, that range from high to low functionality and severity.
Some common struggles include: trouble with understanding non-verbal communication, difficult communicating personal needs, high anxiety and stress, and feeling overwhelmed. These often translate to behaviors such as reduced eye contact, aggression or disruptiveness, resisting hugging, repetitive behaviors, or feeling sensitive to light, sound, and touch. Children with autism generally have certain triggers, such as not following a strict routine and unpredictable events, sensory overload like very bright lights or loud music, not being able to explore their senses to feel their environment, or unrealistic expectations that can cause frustration.
What does art therapy look like?
Since verbal expression doesn’t offer the flexibility autistic children need, art therapy is often a more effective pathway to express feelings and emotions, especially because people with autism are generally visual thinkers. A key objective of art therapy is to help children with autism get used to many different stimuli, from smell to texture.
Art therapy can include many different activities as each individual patient might respond differently to a range of stimuli. Sand art, for instance, was shown to increase verbal expression, engaged and sustained social interaction, and increased symbolic, spontaneous, and novel play over a 10-week program. One study by Kotlovanova and Makinina found that through sand art therapy, almost all children with ASD began to show interest in group activities and work on new drawings. They concluded that children were able to develop perseverance, strengthen teamwork skills, and stabilize mood, along with developing fine motor skills.
Caption: Tactile sand art therapy with different colours
Sculpting with playdough or clay could help develop motor skills and flexibility with unfamiliar scenarios. Collaborative artwork is also a great way for children with autism to communicate with their peers and form relationships. A study by Kato investigated the effects of collaborative art therapy through the collaborative block creation method, specifically Lego block creation, on six Japanese male adolescents with high-functioning ASD. The results found that adolescents increased their social skills, self-efficacy, and satisfaction as they began to communicate and collaborate with each other.
Lego blocks used for tactile art therapy
To avoid any triggers, it’s important to keep the same routine, be consistent when explaining instructions, and avoid over-stimulating art materials or keeping too many options. Activities like finger painting for instance, could be overwhelming, so using paint brushes would be a better way for children with autism to interact with paint.
What are the overall effects of art therapy on autism?
Art therapy helps reduce the behavioral symptoms of autism, helping children regulate their emotions, improve social communication, flexibility, and build their self-confidence. They can hone their communication skills through creative expression, develop their visuospatial skills, increase sensory integration, and improve social engagement, while reducing hyperactivity and inattention. Children with autism can use art therapy as a way to vent their frustrations without feeling judged. Unlike general art classes, art therapy doesn't focus on creating art or the aesthetics, but instead uses an understanding of the behaviors, challenges, and psychological attributes of ASD to build upon the strengths of every child.
As a traditional and digital artist myself, I personally find art to be a great creative outlet for my emotions and stressors. Having researched the positive effects of art therapy on autism and interacted with autistic adolescents and special needs instructors alike, my goal is to teach art to children diagnosed with ASD through a variety of mediums so that they can build their self-confidence and creative expression. I’m also working towards the destigmatization of autism and other mental illnesses through my non-profit initiative PsychTeen, to spread reliable and comprehensive information.
Author: Saanvi Dixit