by Claire Draycot
Communication problems arising from A.S.D can be the hardest part of growing up on the spectrum. It can be harder still for parents of autistic children. Prior to diagnosis, parents often tell themselves that their autistic child is just ‘In a world of their own’. It’s a world they find it distressingly hard to penetrate. When diagnosis is made, parents may give up the idea of ever gaining an understanding of their child’s inner life. Even those closest to an autistic child may be left with the agonizing impression that they do not really know them. They may form impressions about their personality and capabilities based purely on the fact that they find it hard to express themselves through social interaction. This is where art can provide huge benefits, not only for autistic children, but also for their families.
As the great work done by projects like The Art of Autism demonstrate, art projects can open up a window through which autistic children can let their personalities and talents shine without the pressures and stresses of conversational communication. Parents who may have previously considered their child unimaginative have been blown away to discover through their child’s art that, behind a non-expressive exterior, they have been nurturing a vibrant and intelligent inner life.
The art autistic children create can be eye-opening for their families. Unfortunately, the public perception of autism is not a positive one. Autistic people are seen by the ignorant as unsociable loners, to be pitied, patronized, or avoided. Unfortunately, this false impression is reinforced by high profile film portrayals of autistic characters, which often do less to provide a nuanced, empathetic, and respectful portrait of autistic people, and more to showcase behaviors perceived as ‘odd’ for the salacious delight of blockbuster audiences. Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Rain Man’, for example, sticks in the mind as a man with comically painful social ineptitude and an ability with numbers portrayed as freakish rather than as a gift.
This in many ways removes the humanity from the person, and promotes the horrible idea of the autistic as being incurably ‘different’. It is an enduring stereotype, and one which many families have trouble shaking off when a child is diagnosed with A.S.D. Family members may begin unconsciously to view the autistic child as a ‘Rain Man’ style character – a misunderstanding which is upsetting for all parties involved. The medical profession is doing more and more every year to provide families with the informational resources so desperately needed to help dispel harmful myths. However, those who are unaware of the informational resources out there may have imprinted upon media portrayals of autistic characters. It can come as a wonderful shock to find that their child, when given paints and a canvas, or a pen and a notebook, can create beautiful art demonstrating a clear depth of soul and an inner life containing a range of emotions hitherto not effectively expressed.
Engaging in Original Self-Expression
Some art created by autistic children is truly astonishing.
While scientists are working to challenge the popular perception that autism and creativity are incompatible, the preference for routine and ‘sameness’ displayed by many autistic children may seem to imply a lack of imagination. The stunning artwork showcased in the Art of Autism and Drawing Autism projects reveals this to be very far from the case. The accompanying interviews by children and teenagers featured in the project reveal their work to be in many ways far more original than pieces by non-autistic artists. The autistic artists often show little inclination to be influenced by any source other than what interests them. Their works are thus entirely their own interpretation of the world, and many show a stunning depth of imagination which they cannot express through any other medium. Creative projects can thus be hugely beneficial in allowing children to communicate with others and express themselves without the frustrations and misunderstandings of conventional social interaction.
However, while art can provide a way for autistic children and their loved ones to get to know each other without the need for social interaction, it can also help those children to understand why social interaction is important, and teach them to use it more effectively. Dance and movement, such as Autism Movement Therapy, have proven very effective in helping autistic children to develop an awareness of how they use their bodies, while a growing trend for photography projects among the autism community has revealed the camera to be a useful tool in helping autistic children to understand the world.
Taking photographs of their families and friends, then working through the images can enable autistic children to spot patterns and behaviors to which they may be oblivious when ‘played live’. The InFocus project for autistic adults and children has seen great results in the personal growth and fulfilment of their autistic photographers. Working towards the inspiring purpose of creating a great photograph provides an impetus to learn the conditions in which that photograph will be achieved. A photographer needs a good deal of self-awareness. Perhaps most importantly, they need to be aware of how their own social actions will alter photographic conditions. People smile at the photographer when it is appropriate for a photograph to be taken, and generally do not when it is not. The impulse to get a photograph in which people are behaving as the photographer wants them to thus teaches a degree of self-awareness. It enables the child to learn how to create and/or manage a social atmosphere from which good photos will result.
Group Art for Altruism
Group art projects have been shown to be hugely beneficial in giving autistic children a greater understanding of the world of social interaction, and their place in it. Colors of Play believe that getting children people with autism together to complete a piece of joint art provides an excellent environment for these young people to practice social interaction and teamwork. The children are given their own part of piece to complete on their own, before a joint decision is made by all the children regarding how their contributions will go together to make up the whole. The children are thus able to express themselves individually while still getting the opportunity to practice communication with others. Art therapists overseeing these projects have remarked upon the unexpected instances of altruism which they seem to foster.
Children previously absorbed in their own worlds have been amazed to find in these groups other children to whom they can relate, and with whom they can practice social interaction in a safe, unpressured place. This is an empowering experience for many, and often results in altruistic impulses – to share crayons and paints, for example – which had previously been unseen in these children. Art therapy for families with autistic children may have similar effects. A teamwork activity like creating a work of art takes the family out of the home situation, and allows them to learn about each other in ways they may not have experienced before. It also showcases for parents the family dynamic, illustrating habits they may unthinkingly utilize when dealing with their children and each other which are unhelpful or counterproductive.
Working Towards Greater Understanding
So often the emphasis is on ‘overcoming’ an impairment. Parents of autistic children need to understand that their child does not need to ‘overcome’ their autism. Their autism is part of who they are. However, they can learn to work with it, to gain a greater understanding of what works for them and what does not, what they are capable of dealing with in a world not geared towards them, and how to cope with things that are hard for them to deal with. In order to help the child understand what they can do, and work towards dealing with what they currently cannot, the parent first needs to gain a greater understanding of the child. There is no better way to do this than to see the results of their personal expression, as exemplified through their art.
Hi Claire. Thanks so much for your wonderful article about the ways that the arts can open up a window into the emotional and intellectual world of people with autism. Our family produced the Starabella audio/ picture books for children ages 2-8. These books feature Starabella, a little girl with autism who expresses her thoughts and feelings and reflections of the world around her through music. I based the stories on the experiences and music of my daughter Tara who, like Starabella, uses her piano to express her emotions and thoughts. Many children with autism and without relate to Tara’s music. They form empathy for the Starabella character through the emotions revealed n her music. As you say, people with autism are not devoid of feelings. Tara’s feelings, appreciation for nature and sharing of her dreams expressed in her music can be intense. Thank you for letting others know what a good outlet for people with autism the arts can be and how revealing they can be for others to get to know them and enter their worlds. Sharon Fialco/Author/Starabella audio-picture books with music.
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