Five Things I Learned About Autism from My Art Therapist

young-boy-paintingAn art therapist named Kelly came into my life unexpectedly when she called my office one day. In a serendipitous chain of events, she expressed interest in networking with other mental health professionals in the field of autism. I immediately hired her to work with my own teenage son, who is on the autism spectrum. I figured this would give me an opportunity to see her work firsthand and decide if she was a therapist I would recommend.

She has worked with my son for the past year, and not only did I recommend her to every ASD mommy I know, I hired her to work in my private practice—partly so no one else would snatch her up, but mostly because of what I learned art therapy could do for kids with ASD.

Art Therapy Is Very Different from ‘Doing Arts and Crafts

Kelly once told me the story of applying for a job at a school for autism and being told, “No, thanks, we already have an art teacher.” This was disheartening; most people don’t know that art therapy is NOT the same as art education. The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as a “mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.” And as I’ve learned over the past year, it’s an especially effective method for people on the autism spectrum.

Art Is a Communication Tool

Verbal communication is a challenge for a majority of kids on the spectrum. However, just because a child can’t speak doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have anything to say. Through art, and with the help of Kelly’s interpretation and attention to detail, I have witnessed my son express anger, joy, and even loneliness. There have been eye-opening moments when he has opened up to his therapist without using words, because he knew it was a safe place where he is accepted just as he is.

Art Is a Self-Regulation Tool

All kids need to be taught what to do with big, scary emotions, but kids on the spectrum often have the added challenge of sensory integration difficulties. This means that sounds could be experienced louder, sense of touch can under- or over-interpret, and ability to feel their body in space can be altered. Through art, instead of biting his hand when he gets upset, my son can now squeeze a ball of clay. When he feels strange sensations on his skin, he can play with water or sand to help his body adjust. And when the light in the room becomes assaulting, his therapist turns out the lights and they have “glow time” with a special board that lights up, with art created on top of it.

Process Is More Important Than Product

In my experience treating ASD parents, I have seen a great deal of emphasis placed on the end result; our days seem to be filled with goals, objectives, data, behavior plans, IEPs, and medication logs. All of these things have their place, but it’s important to balance them with the awareness of the actual process: the moments along the way to the goal that are filled with the most poignant and revelatory times with our children, when they are simply being loved and appreciated for who they are and what they CAN do. As an ASD mom, I know too well the longing for a picture I can hang on the fridge. But my art therapist doesn’t place the value on a pretty picture or a completed sculpture. Rather, she stays with my son through the process of the art making, with a more important goal in mind: allowing him the freedom to be himself.

Art Provides an Opportunity to Truly Be with Our Kids

Our children appreciate it when we just share the same space with them. Every day, most of the day, kids on the spectrum are told what to do, how to do it, and in what way. They have picture schedules, charts, and reminders to provide the almighty, great-and-powerful “structure.” Structure is often necessary and appreciated by kids, but art provides an opportunity for some “unstructured structure.” My son loves being able to choose big paper or little paper, crayons or paints, brush or fingers. He appreciates being asked, “What would YOU like to do with these materials?” All the while, his therapist is there to guide, encourage, and simply be “present” with him.

How do I know that my son, who can barely chain enough words together to make a coherent sentence, appreciates these things? Because while he’s creating in a therapy session and his therapist says, “It looks like you have a lot to say today, and I just want you to know I’m listening,” he puts down his crayon, looks into her eyes, and gently strokes her cheek as the corners of his mouth turn up into a knowing smile. After all, if we want our children communicate with more than just words, we need to be able to listen with more than just our ears.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nena

    Nena

    August 28th, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    I wish that there was more emphasis across the board that the process is more important than the product.

    I have a child who, although not autistic, has been discouraged from a very early age about her own abilities because she doesn’t feel like she measures up to others. She puts in all the effort in the world, and she may not be next van Gogh when it comes to the outcome but if there was a prize for effort she would certainly win. There are times though when this is not rewarded, just the end result, and this discourages those who could do so much more from even continuin to try.

  • Molly

    Molly

    August 28th, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    Was unaware of how much art therapy can help.I thought art therapy is just about letting individuals express themselves,never though it would something this deep and intense.

    I am impressed to say the least.So in a sense art can help each one of us and not just those with autism.Am I right?How can one bring about a suitable environment to derive the full benefits of such an activity knowin that most of us have grown with the world telling us that results are all that matter?

  • ty

    ty

    August 29th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    Sounds like this is a previosly unexplored outlet for autistic children that you have recognized as one that has potential for both your practice and for your own child.

    Congrats on finding something that works for you and for caring enough to want to share that with other families too.

  • Mindy Rosengarten, art therapist

    Mindy Rosengarten, art therapist

    August 29th, 2013 at 3:13 PM

    Thank you for sharing your insights. It’s wonderful to know the life-changing benefits of art therapy are being are shared and may reach more who can be helped. I work in a Psychiatric Hosptital, and everything you stated applies there as well.

  • brandt

    brandt

    September 2nd, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    It must be hard to work in a field where there are so few people who are very much aware of the benefits of the work that you do.

    I know that you don’t do it for the recognition and applause but sometimes it’s nice just to have someone notice that the work that you do is valuable and important and who share that with you from time to time.

  • Sally

    Sally

    September 16th, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this. It’s a little hard not to get choked up at the end. I am currently working with special ed preschoolers, but have started the long road of going back to school with the end goal of becoming an art therapist. Thank you for inspiring me this morning.

  • Carol

    Carol

    September 18th, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    Nice to hear art therapy can work for some people on the spectrum. My child, however, truly hates working with art. Tolerates it for school but does the absolute minimum. Like everything in life, don’t expect one thing to work for everyone. Good luck to those who might benefit and can afford it!

  • Kim A.

    Kim A.

    April 1st, 2015 at 8:32 PM

    The willingness to take chance on behalf of your son and others with ASD is to be commended. Kelly sees her clients through clear eyes and a caring soul. Thank you for sharing this very special piece.

  • Rose

    Rose

    April 4th, 2015 at 2:02 PM

    What a Marvellous idea

  • Karen

    Karen

    July 24th, 2015 at 2:05 PM

    What a pleasure to read this piece today. At 17, the arts was the door I found and walked through to connect and communicate with others. When art is present, so am I. I have held that door open for others all my life. Thank you.

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