To children and adults on the autism spectrum the world is one big sensory overload, every day. Many of them experience heightened hearing and smell, which quickly become overwhelming in crowded areas. Combine that with difficulties expressing and understanding social interactions and it’s enough to make anyone scream. Art Therapy offers an alternate form of expression to these individuals in a secure, comfortable environment.
Visual Thinking, Routines and Self-Esteem
People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often very visual thinkers – many self-describe as “thinking in pictures” (as opposed to abstract terms and concepts). The ASD mind prefers concrete explanations and routines, which the unpredictable outside world often does not provide. But art is a self-directed activity where the artist is completely in control of the process and the outcome.
Art therapy can also be as interactive or individual as the client likes. Their personal space is protected and they may choose to share their project at any time, which can lead to improved social interaction. Regular, positive feedback in this environment strengthens feelings of self-esteem and acceptance. These feelings can be hard to come by for ASD individuals feeling isolated in the outside world.
Art Therapy & Skill-Building
Activities like “Free Drawing” often open up lines of communication with quiet or non-verbal clients. They are invited to draw anything at all that comes to mind, and can then explain their creation if they choose. This alternate form of communication helps them to overcome the frustration of trying to express themselves. And beyond that, many ASD individuals find themselves distracted and seeking sensory stimulation in normal situations. Providing them a self-directed project channels their tendency toward intense focus into an expressive outlet.
Similarly, creating collages out of paper, cotton balls, ribbon and other materials provides tactile stimulation. This is especially important because touch can be another overwhelming sensation, and becoming accustomed to different textures can provide therapeutic exposure. Fine motor skills are practiced through activities like cutting, pasting and organizing materials. Occupying the mind and hands allows the client to switch their focus from the overwhelming experience of the world to the pleasant, proud activity of creating artwork.
Understanding Other People
ASD individuals typically struggle with implicit social cues, such as a sarcastic tone of voice. It can be difficult for them to understand a person’s meaning if that person is purposely exaggerating or speaking in metaphor. The symbolic nature of art makes it a wonderful exercise in understanding indirect meaning.
It can also help with seeing another person’s viewpoint. Difficulty processing verbal conversation doesn’t keep someone from perceiving feelings in a piece of art someone else has created. Discussing the meaning and mood in different pieces of art is a helpful way to learn to recognize those things in everyday interactions as well.
The Therapist’s Role
Autism is measured along a spectrum (hence the term Autism Spectrum Disorder), and each person experiences a varying level of social or sensory impairment. It is important that a therapist find the best approach for each individual. As the client and therapist become acquainted and begin to bond over progress and accomplishments, the most beneficial path is gradually discovered. Goals are developed for the art therapy sessions as well as at home, and develop at a pace the client is happy with.
A good art therapist is a guide and a cheerleader, and celebrates every personal expression a client shares. Here at Loving Life we believe that every single person is capable of improving their daily functions and abilities, and that ASD individuals are highly receptive to social integration. Even in the case of adults whose long-term responses have become habitual. With the help of a trained art therapist clients can begin to change their behaviors, and learn new responses that help them cope better with difficult environments. Art allows people — even serious, grown people — to let down their guard and feel a freedom they don’t experience in daily life.
Call or email us today with any questions about autism or art therapy and we’ll be happy to provide all the details you need.
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