Art has always been a way for children to express themselves. As children with autism typically find it challenging to communicate with others in words, art can be useful to them. This is especially so when most children with autism are visual thinkers, making art a good way for self-expression and communication (Rudy, 2021). In addition, due to its fun, stress-free and interesting nature, art can be intrinsically motivating for children with autism. Hence, it can be an effective medium to develop vital skills and improve their daily functioning (Lacour, 2018). Although both art therapy and art classes use visual art materials, they have different goals. Art therapy provides a platform for individuals to understand and express their own emotions, improving their mental and emotional health, whereas art classes give specific instructions on achieving certain artistic goals. Hence, art classes can be useful for children with autism, but should not be a substitute for art therapy.
Even though a client-directed approach (i.e., letting the child lead the various art activities) is beneficial in art therapy, having some structure during sessions is also crucial. For instance, the art therapist usually starts off with a warm-up activity and explains the different activities for the session (e.g., through visual schedules). Visual or audio reminders of how much time is left for each activity (e.g., through the use of timers) are used to facilitate the transitions. It may also be necessary to limit the availability of art materials as too many choices may be stressful for the child.
Research has found that art therapy can be beneficial for children with autism in various aspects of their life – socially, mentally, emotionally, and physically (Schweizer et al., 2014).
1. Improved social and communication skills
As compared to verbal communication, communicating through visual arts, such as painting, drawing or sculpturing, allows children with autism to process the world in a more open-ended and flexible way (Lesser, 2018). By allowing the child to lead the art topic, it helps them to express their feelings and thoughts – be it positive or negative, in their own way.
Besides that, children with autism may have difficulties understanding social cues, such as facial expressions and body language. Through creating art together, this provides an opportunity for them to bond with their therapists, peers or family members, without the initial need for verbal interaction, which could be stressful for them. Looking at others’ artwork enables children with autism to understand others’ perspectives. In group settings, social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, cooperation, understanding individual differences, can be practiced through art group projects (Lacour, 2018).
2. Improved emotional regulation
Children with autism sometimes struggle to manage their own emotions, especially when the situations are highly stressful and anxiety-provoking, resulting in aggressive outbursts or complete withdrawal. Art therapy helps them identify and regulate their emotions in a safe environment. For instance, artmaking can be used as one of their coping strategies whenever they feel anxious or angry about certain situations (Lesser, 2018).
3. Improved learning and motor skills
During art therapy, children with autism are provided with a wide array of art materials to choose from, and each art activity can help to develop their gross and fine motor skills (Rudy, 2021). For example, colouring with crayons allows them to practise the 3-finger grip that is essential for developing handwriting skills. Cutting and pasting during art and craft work trains their fine motor skills. Painting with hands or feet, or clay modelling helps in the development of gross motor skills. Furthermore, as art can be exciting to children with autism, it improves their attention span as they focus on artmaking for a lengthened period of time. This also allows the art therapist to incorporate learning of new skills into the sessions when the child is highly motivated, making it faster and easier for the child to pick up new skills and information.
4. Improved ability to manage sensory sensitivities, especially for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD)
Many children with autism can be over- or under-sensitive to light, touch, sound, smell or taste. Through art therapy, it exposes them to anxiety-provoking textures or smells in a gradual and fun manner. For example, a child may be aversive to the texture of paint. Using a paintbrush with a long handle or using balls allows the child to familiarise themselves with the paint in a stress-free manner. Gradually, finger painting can be introduced to help the child become desensitised to the texture. Through repeated exposures to these stimuli, they are more able to tolerate these sensations in daily life. For example, a child would be able to better bear touching slimy hand soap once they are constantly exposed to slimy, paste-covered strips of newspapers during art therapy.
Moreover, art therapy provides a platform for children with autism to channel their stimming behaviours into socially acceptable, creative outlets. For example, a child may repeatedly flick their fingers or twist strips of paper. These behaviours can be channelled to flicking paint onto a piece of paper or twisting strips of coloured paper and pasting them to make a collage during art therapy (Lacour, 2018).
All in all, art therapy can be an effective method to help children with autism express their needs, emotions and thoughts in a stress-free environment. Not only does it improve their social, mental, emotional and physical aspects of their lives, it also acts as a creative outlet for their stimming behaviours. Hence, art therapy can be considered as an alternative or supplementary way of helping children with autism cope with their challenges.
Written by: Xiao Hui
Lacour, K. (September 20, 2018). The value of art therapy for those on the autism spectrum. The Art of Autism. Retrieved from https://the-art-of-autism.com/the-value-of-art-therapy-for-those-on-the-autism-spectrum/
Lesser, C. (April 26, 2018). How art therapy is helping children with autism express themselves. Artsy. Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-art-therapy-helping-children-autism-express
Rudy, L. J. (November 1, 2021). How art therapy helps people with autism. Very well health. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/art-therapy-for-autism-260054
Schweizer, C., Knorth, E. J., & Spreen, M. (2014). Art therapy with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A review of clinical case descriptions on “what works.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(5), 577–593. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2014.10.009