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Art Therapy, Autism and Artspeaks

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This year Artspeaks aims to expand its reach to support the work of charities that implement art therapy practices when supporting individuals with learning needs. More recently, as a Special Educational Needs teacher, my work has involved creating and delivering curriculum related tasks that are accessible for children experiencing a host of learning needs ranging from social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, dyslexia to some pupils exhibiting mild traits of autism. Although not officially trained as an art or play therapist, my sessions tend to incorporate appropriate elements of art and play and the results are simply fantastic – children are able to ‘creatively’ engage in activities, meet the learning objective and most importantly leave sessions with a sense of accomplishment.

There are and will always continue to be many conflicting studies regarding the benefits of art therapy as a whole in treating a plethora of conditions. This method of intervention has however, grown significantly over the last fifty years highlighting its efficacy in comparison to other forms of intervention, which have failed to be as positive.

Having implemented art processes within my own teaching, I can certainly identify with why art therapy has grown to be popular, the main attributing factor being that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in art. An art therapist will support their client by enabling expression that focuses on what is right with them as opposed to what is wrong with them. Furthermore, as seen from my own experience, art in itself fosters the scope for communication to take place where words cannot express the feelings, ideas or experiences an individual may be encountering. For young children, particularly for those who are on the autism spectrum or who have selective mutism, art therapy can be an extremely powerful tool for expression.

“Art therapy is a unique form of treatment for autism, as it helps mitigate symptoms, while also channelling autistic behaviours in to an expressive, creative outlet. It promotes communication, emotional growth and sensory integration while also fostering social interaction in a fun setting.” – Kate Lacour

Autism is a neurological condition present at birth, and with an unknown cause, the condition is steadily rising. A key trait of individuals on the autism spectrum can be seen in the difficulty they may find with verbal and social communication. This can vary from the inability to process language that can pave the way towards cohesive verbal conversation. In addition, many individuals may struggle coping in social situations, where certain ‘social behaviours’ my be expected in order to relate to others – something that many of us are able to perform with relative ease and comfort.

Apart from enabling expression to take place, art therapy encourages thinking visually, in pictures and symbols, which many individuals with autism have a natural knack in performing. Most importantly, art therapy can help to improve the ability to manage sensory issues as very often individuals with autism find a range of sensory stimuli overwhelmingly unbearable and intolerable. A wonderful example of this can be seen in a child who gradually became comfortable with using soap after a series of art sessions that incorporated handling slimy textures in a fun and creative manner.

The demand for school based intervention to support children with learning needs is also increasing and unfortunately, conditions can often go unnoticed or intervention provided is too late – instead of dealing with one area, other difficulties require addressing.

Overall, children and young people with autism are more likely to be open to art therapy based approaches as there are greater levels of enjoyment and satisfaction associated with handling and exploring art materials. Not only can individuals develop life skills i.e. interpersonal skills but also a reduction in stress but most crucially, an increased confidence in abilities.

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Samia Quddus
Samia Quddus, Founder of Artspeaks. This blog was written from a personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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