The Autism NoteBook October/November 2014 : Page 8

What Art Therapy Can Teach Us about Autism JANEEN HERSKOVITZ, MA, LMHC T he lives of children with autism are often filled with a plethora of therapeutic intervention. Speech, oc-cupational, physical, behavior, hippo, play, and aqua therapies are part of mainstay daily schedules for literally thousands of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each therapy certainly has its fair share of benefit as it targets to change the development of the individual. Art therapy is different, however, in that it does not focus on changing the person, but rather on bringing out qualities of who they are and what they have to express – regardless of whether they are able to verbally communicate or not. Art as a Communication Tool It has been said that “Just because a child can't speak, doesn't mean they don't have anything to say.” Through art therapy, children can learn to express themselves in unimaginable ways. Joy, anger and even loneliness are a few of the feelings that children with autism oftentimes struggle to convey, but these emotions are often found at the surface of their artwork. Because the child feels safe and ac-cepted creating something unique to themselves, special messages are often revealed that otherwise would have been lost for the child with limited verbal ability. Art as a Tool of Self-Regulation Art Therapy Is Not "Arts and Crafts" The American Art Therapy Association (www.arttherapy.org) describes art therapy as a "mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physi-cal, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages." And that’s exactly what it is. Not all art therapists are willing or knowl-edgeable enough to work with kids on the spectrum, but those who are can use art directives to help kids work toward almost any goal. In art therapy, there’s less concern with a final product and more focus on the process, or experience, the person has during the therapy session. Therapy is effective in teaching children what to do with scary, larger-than-life emotions. But for kids with ASD this is an even big-ger challenge since many of them have sensory integration difficul-ties. Sounds are often experienced louder, their sense of touch can be over or under stimulated, and their ability to move their body in space can be altered. Through art, even a child who has aggressive sensory seeking behaviors, such as head banging, can be taught to squeeze clay or Play-doh as a replacement behavior. When experi-encing strange sensations, creating designs in a sand tray or playing in water can help their body adjust. And when the light in the therapy room or classroom is too much, the therapist can dim the lights and have "glow time" with a special board that lights up and art can be created on top of it. www .F ACebook . Com /t he A utism N otebook 8 t he A utism N otebook M AgAziNe | o Ct /N ov 2014

What Art Therapy Can Teach Us about Autism

Janeen Herskovitz


The lives of children with autism are often filled with a plethora of therapeutic intervention. Speech, occupational, physical, behavior, hippo, play, and aqua therapies are part of mainstay daily schedules for literally thousands of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each therapy certainly has its fair share of benefit as it targets to change the development of the individual. Art therapy is different, however, in that it does not focus on changing the person, but rather on bringing out qualities of who they are and what they have to express – regardless of whether they are able to verbally communicate or not.

Art Therapy Is Not "Arts and Crafts"

The American Art Therapy Association (www.arttherapy.org) 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 that’s exactly what it is. Not all art therapists are willing or knowledgeable enough to work with kids on the spectrum, but those who are can use art directives to help kids work toward almost any goal. In art therapy, there’s less concern with a final product and more focus on the process, or experience, the person has during the therapy session.

Art as a Communication Tool

It has been said that “Just because a child can't speak, doesn't mean they don't have anything to say.” Through art therapy, children can learn to express themselves in unimaginable ways. Joy, anger and even loneliness are a few of the feelings that children with autism oftentimes struggle to convey, but these emotions are often found at the surface of their artwork. Because the child feels safe and accepted creating something unique to themselves, special messages are often revealed that otherwise would have been lost for the child with limited verbal ability.

Art as a Tool of Self-Regulation

Therapy is effective in teaching children what to do with scary, larger-than-life emotions. But for kids with ASD this is an even bigger challenge since many of them have sensory integration difficulties. Sounds are often experienced louder, their sense of touch can be over or under stimulated, and their ability to move their body in space can be altered. Through art, even a child who has aggressive sensory seeking behaviors, such as head banging, can be taught to squeeze clay or Play-doh as a replacement behavior. When experiencing strange sensations, creating designs in a sand tray or playing in water can help their body adjust. And when the light in the therapy room or classroom is too much, the therapist can dim the lights and have "glow time" with a special board that lights up and art can be created on top of it.

Process Vs. Product

In the world of ASD, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the end result. Kids’ schedules are filled with goals, objectives, data, behavior plans, IEPs, and medication logs. These things certainly have their time and place, but it's important to balance measurable goals with a respect for the therapeutic process. The moments of engagement en route to the goal can be the most poignant and impactful times. Amazing things happen when individuals are simply loved and appreciated for who they are and what they CAN do. Many parents have the strong desire for a hang-on-the-fridge-worthy masterpiece, but a good art therapist places more value on the time spent creating, than on the finished product itself. It’s vitally important to give individuals the freedom to be themselves.

Art Can Connect You to Your Child

Kids relish when you share the same space with them. On a daily basis children on the spectrum are told what to do and how to do it. There are picture schedules, visual cues and apps that provide reminders of the great-and- powerful "structure". Structure is often necessary, but art provides the gift of "unstructured structure". Many kids love being able to choose markers or paints, big paper or little paper, making a masterpiece or making a mess. Art therapy is one of the few times they are asked, "What would YOU like to do with these materials?" The therapist’s job is simply to encourage, guide, and be "present".

Art therapy has the potential to open up a whole new world for you and your child or loved one. Each new project brings a novel set of possibilities to further enhance creative self-expression. Experiencing the arts can boost imagination, offer an alternate form of communication and teach symbolic thinking. It is strength-based and success-oriented. Activities are designed to foster self-esteem and self-awareness, while allowing opportunities for creative and emotional self-expression.

At the end of the day, if we want our kids to communicate with more than just words, we need to be able to listen with more than just our ears.

To find an art therapist in your area, you can visit arttherapy.org or consult a provider directory such as psychologytoday.com or Goodtherapy.org. Be sure to ask if they are trained in working with children on the autism spectrum. You can also type in "art therapy and autism" in a directory search.

Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and owner of Puzzle Peace Counseling, LLC. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Rowan University and a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling from Webster.

Read the full article at http://virtualpublications.soloprinting.com/article/What+Art+Therapy+Can+Teach+Us+about+Autism/1828691/227988/article.html.

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