How Art Therapy Is Helping Children with Autism Express Themselves

Casey Lesser
Apr 25, 2018 9:00PM

Photo by Aaron Burden.

For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), art can be an ideal means of expression. Researchers and leaders in the field of autism education, like Temple Grandin, have done well to explain that individuals with ASD tend to think visually.

“I have noticed that children with autism think in pictures,” art therapist Theresa Van Lith told Artsy. “So it’s a natural progression, then, to use the visual arts to communicate what’s going on in their world.”

Van Lith is part of a broad group of art therapists who specialize in working with individuals with ASD. Verbal communication, she noted, “doesn’t allow them the flexibility that they need to show to us how they see things, which is different.” In contrast, communicating visually—be it through drawing with markers or sculpting with clay—offers opportunities to process the world in a more open-ended, flexible, and sensory way.

Over the past few years, art therapists have published research on how art therapy has been positively impacting children with ASD. A November 2017 study led by art therapist Celine Schweizer found that, broadly, “art therapy could have an effect on reducing behavioral problems of children with autism in specific problem areas, including social communicative behavior, flexibility, and self-image.” Indeed, art therapists are finding that regular art therapy sessions can help children with ASD both at school and at home, with things like regulating their emotions, interacting with peers and family members, and building self-confidence.

Van Lith notes that art therapy can begin for a child with ASD as early as age two or three. “It’s a way that they can problem-solve that suits their thinking style, in a world that’s otherwise kind of confusing and overwhelming much of the time,” she said.

Art therapist Jessica Stallings, who also specializes in clients with ASD, notes that many such art therapists take a client-directed approach. “I let them lead me to the most important thing they need to do,” she explained. For example, when working with a young boy who is struggling with recent diagnoses of both autism and epilepsy, she lets him make narrative drawings that spell out his own feelings and frustrations.

It’s also important to introduce some structure to the sessions. The art therapist might begin with a warm-up or an exercise; they’ll be sure to remind the child of how much time is left and what will happen next. Often, it’s necessary to limit the art supplies that are available: Too many options can be startling. And certain materials might not be appropriate for every child.

“Often, kids are introduced to painting through finger painting, but if you’re someone who’s sensory averse, that is a pretty threatening activity,” Stallings explained. “Instead, we might use Hot Wheels cars or tennis balls or a paintbrush with a very long handle—so they can interact with the paint, without having to touch it.”

Developing a familiarity with different art materials can help a child’s fine and gross motor skills, while letting them become more flexible in unfamiliar scenarios. Perhaps most importantly, art therapy can allow a child with ASD to express their feelings and impressions of the world. “They’re using the paintbrushes to gain control and achieve mastery, using lines to color the way they want to, using clay to mold their ideas into a visual form,” Van Lith explained.

For example, she notes that she was working with an 18-year-old client whom she’d encouraged to externalize how he saw the world. “What was really validating for him was that he was showing his artworks to his parents,” she said, “and his parents realized how much he observed and how perceptive he was.”

A lot of the work art therapists do to improve social skills among clients happens one-on-one, but it can also be facilitated in a group setting. Stallings said that, in these cases, she often provides a limited number of art supplies, giving children the opportunity to practice things like sharing and taking turns. “There are a lot of opportunities for focusing specifically on how to be in relationships with others,” she explained,  alluding to situations where children have to relinquish some control and respect the behaviors of others.

One commonly used round-robin exercise involves asking children to create a collaborative artwork. They’ll begin a drawing, then pass it on to the child next to them, and so on and so forth, until each child has added to the piece (a bit like Exquisite Corpse, a game that Surrealist artists were known to play). Van Lith recalled one instance where she did this with a group of eight children, all of whom were around five years old, and all non-verbal. “They began to realize that by making lines on the piece of paper, they were contributing to someone else’s art creation,” she said. “They started to look over at each other and acknowledge, ‘Okay, I see you, I realize that you’re here.’ That can be a validating process, to see that another person feels or sees the world in a similar way as you. They can realize that they’re not alone.”

Making art is an emotional experience. This means that therapy sessions allow children with ASD to practice recognizing and controlling their emotions in a controlled environment. “A lot of times, individuals with autism can be kind of impulsive, or when they have sensory overload, they have a hard time not becoming really upset,” Stallings explained, noting that much of her work deals with identifying emotionally upsetting situations and developing coping strategies, which often involve artmaking.

Over time, Van Lith notes, some individuals with ASD embrace art as part of their larger sense of self. “Later in adulthood, the art therapy process can help them to cultivate their artistic identity, to see themselves as an artist in their own right,” she explained. “Having autism is just one part of who they are.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.