Book Review: Art as a Language for Autism

Art as A Language for Autsim Jane Ferris Richardson

Art as a Language for Autism: Building Effective Therapeutic Relationships with Children and Adolescents (2023) Jane Ferris Richardson

By Connie Gretsch MA Art Therapy, M Ed Art Integration, SLBP Special Education, Expressive Art and Special Educator

Jane Ferris Richardson is an art therapist, play therapist, exhibiting artist, and associate professor of art therapy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her book introduces a personal history of the therapeutic work of a highly empathetic, creative, and observant therapist, and her curious and responsive clients.

Dr. Richardson has carefully collected the stories of her sessions, and she has detailed observations to share with her fellow therapists, but also with teachers and caregivers. Her goal is to show the reader how to build effective therapeutic relationships with autistic children and adolescents.

An autistic child may or may not have speech as their number one, preferred language. The author introduces the importance of the “100 languages” that are always available to children, as discussed by the educators of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Here she first experienced an approach to education for children with “special rights,” as children with learning or processing differences are described in Reggio. Dr Richardson often uses non-verbal languages during her sessions: music, movement, and play as well as art. Her careful documentation of what is learned and experienced through therapy is clearly influenced by the Reggio approach.

The author examines her expressive art therapy sessions with her flowing writing style. She offers an intuitive process by weaving one story into the next. Dr. Richardson excels at writing about a multidimensional subject matter as she tracks the variety of stories, ideas, and emotions within a session. This writing style keeps the reader interested in her views, and in creative therapy methods; and it creates an excellent learning environment for the reader.

What shines through the writing of this book is the author’s ability to move from the session’s director to the child’s partner. It has become her way of following her clients into their world of thought and movement. She has gone one step further in this book by sharing these experiences with her readers. The book is also a reflection of her teaching ability.

This book is a constructive teaching tool for therapists, educators, and caregivers. As Marks-Tarlow notes:

Clinical intuition requires an attuned response through which psychotherapists become anchored enough in their bodies and perception to fully open their eyes, ears, hearts, and souls without preconception. This is how we operate with real presence and authenticity, from the inside out, grounded within our sensibilities, emotional experiences, and unique perspective (Marks-Tarlow, 2012a, 2014).

Dr. Richardson gives numerous documented examples of clinical intuition throughout Art as a Language for Autism. She also suggests that expressive therapies can help develop these relationships on many levels. In Art as a Language for Autism, her clinical intuition depends on her skills, materials, tools, and years of experience working with verbal and non-verbal children.

As we read Richardson’s book, we witness the development of relationships, her building of trustful, safe environments, and her focus on the image of the child sitting before her. She shows us how she interprets the concept of a “hundred languages” in her work with autistic children. She stresses the importance of observing the body and sensory work during the therapeutic session.

So often, the importance of artistic expression is thought of as secondary when it should be primary. Cooper and Widdows proposed that autistic children “ who tend to be more visual and concrete… can better communicate their feelings, emotions, and wants through art-based activities that match their learning styles”. (Cooper & Widdows,2020).

Because of the detailed descriptions of art-based therapeutic work, teachers, therapists, and caregivers can find new communication methods.Dr. Richardson’s thoughts while reflecting on a session are exceedingly valuable. While reading, we find ourselves behind the symbolic one-way mirror. It is easy to pretend we are there because the stories are well described, and pretending is always allowed in this work.

Dr. Richardson exposes us to the complexity beyond the activity; and we became increasingly aware of the emergence of the child’s creative problem-solving in the sessions. Rogers defined the creative process as, “the emergence in an action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other.” (Rogers,1954, p. 251).

Art as a Language for Autism is not an activity-based art therapy book. Instead, it is just the opposite. The author gets into the deep layers of experiential therapy by discussing the children’s movements, interests, and languages from the 100 languages inspiration.
As Shaun McNiff wrote in his preface that, “she fuses the disciplines of education and therapy, cognition and emotion, together.” We see that fusion in the author’s study of the Reggio Emilia schools, and the importance of Loris Malaguzzi’s concept of one hundred languages.

The sand tray sessions with children are most notable, with numerous children’s stories about their play, both verbal and nonverbal . It is another teaching experience where the author shares her process and observations with the reader. The book has numerous photos of clients’ work alongside observations and descriptions of the therapeutic process. Materials are the client’s language, as art therapist Nona Orbach reminds us. (Orbach,2020). The documentation on clay is essential to teachers and therapists. Chapters discussing the use of clay in sessions are necessary for every art teacher and therapist’s training.

Dr. Richardson often refers to the Reggio Emilia approach to language and explains the relationship to her work. After reading Loris Malaguzzis’s 100 Languages theory, it is easy to see why the author decided to weave this concept into her work. By doing so, she presents Reggio concepts as an exciting addition to Art and Play therapy.

It is important to realize here that expressive therapy includes all the art forms of dance, music, drama, visuals, and storytelling when working with children. Using many art experiences, materials, and tools allows the child to express many of the 100 languages, the author’s discussions of sessions rest on both the process and the documentation of her relationships with her clients.

The book describes what art therapy is. Art therapy is not choosing an activity first. Dr. Richardson uses the child’s language and image as a starting point. She then constructs the session around the child. The sessions consist of observing and engaging with the child’s direction. Her experience of using a process that flows from one thing to another easily is something to admire.

Art as A Language for Autsim Jane Ferris Richardson

This book is necessary for anyone working with nonverbal or verbal children because it shows the respect and trust we should all have for the rights of all children. Dr. Richardson leaves us with essential tools for therapy sessions. The reader can creatively design environments for therapy with this book as a support.

With her examples, one can build sessions that are safe and consistent. We can now create our environments for treatment and teaching with observation skills, recognition of 100 languages, relationships of trust and empathy, and multimodal expressive art with play as a catalyst to deep understanding. It brings the arts in therapy together with the theory of language for all children.

. … the cognitive, physical, and emotional activities represented by the arts, dance, music, drama, and visual arts are basic to human experience and necessary for survival.


References and Links

Clinical Intuition

Reggio Emilia

Cooper and Widdows

David Sousa

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