By Leigh Marcos, photos courtesy of Keri Bowers
Art projects are recognized as effective forms of therapy to help kids who have a diagnosis of autism or other learning disabilities. The American Art Therapy Association and the British Association for Art Therapists recognize that art therapy fosters ‘healing and enhances life.’ Art is often a strength of autistic children. Encouraging strengths is important in developing self-esteem.
One of the characteristics of many who have an autism diagnosis is the difficulty and even inability to verbally and socially communicate. Art can be an effective way to communicate. Art can also fulfill sensory needs of children on the autism spectrum. Neurological differences in wiring can interfere with a child’s ability to learn basic skills such as reading and writing as well as advanced skills of organization, time management and memory. Art therapy can function as psychotherapy exploring options for the mind and serve as a means to communicate thoughts and feeling that cannot be conveyed verbally.
Art projects in themselves are not a substitute for art therapy yet they can help children on the autism spectrum. The hands-on approach in working on an art project can improve cognition and motor skills. The sensory experience for many is why art is effective for this segment of the population. While art projects may not reap all the benefits of traditional art therapy with a licensed therapist, they may be a good starting point for those who have problems accessing traditional art therapy.
An art project can be more than simply an hour working on an isolated project. It can encompass deciding what to create, what materials are needed, budgeting, finding materials, working on the project, cleaning up, and sharing the completed project. Below is a short guideline that can be used as a reference point when using inexpensive art projects for autistic children and those with learning difficulties.
Prepare the Child
Social stories before the project begins can prepare a child for the project. The social story can include visiting the store, buying the material, and each step of the project.
Assess Each Child
Each child is different and thus, there is no cookie cutter fit that will apply to all kids with autism or learning difficulties. Hence, the goal is to start art projects that are easy to understand and do. Finger painting, hand painting, making puppets or clay molding are easy and low-cost art projects. It is essential to begin with easy art projects and move to complex ones later on to gradually build the child’s confidence. If the child doesn’t like one medium try another. Art projects should be fun.
You don’t have to spend a lot on supplies. Paints, brushes, colors, acrylics, glue, scissors, beads and the like are things that you may need to start a project. Simple materials you have at home like socks or paper bags, buttons and ribbons can be the makings of an art project. Having the child shop for supplies can be instructive. Creating a budget around an art project can be a learning experience. Empower the child. Have the child choose the colors and the materials they want to use. Teach them how they can combine colors to make new colors. You can alter art supplies to fit the needs and capabilities of each child. Include tactile materials such as clay, yarn or beads to fulfill sensory needs. You can also collect natural materials such as rocks, leaves and moss. The feel of these materials are therapeutic to children. They also help strengthen motor skills by improving eye and hand coordination. Collecting rocks and leaves can be a fun part of the project.
Make sure all your materials are ready. As an example, if you decide to make a picture collage, think of having back-up supplies so you will not run out of them and risk interrupting the flow of art creation.
Lay out newspapers and magazines on a wide surface where the child can work. Explain patiently what you expect of the child. Explaining by demonstrating is the best approach so that the child can mimic and understand what you are trying to do and what you want them to do. Many autistic children have trouble with receptive language. They may have better visual comprehension. Showing rather than telling can enhance the experience. Breaking the project into well-defined steps can help the child. Having visuals of the project in steps on cards can help an autistic child know what is expected of them and can help the child from feeling lost or overwhelmed.
Remember art helps build fine motor as well as cognitive skills. Thus, sensory perceptions and experiences are important. What the child feels throughout the creative process is an opportunity to express sentiments and thoughts. In addition, building self-confidence is crucial.
Adjusting the project to make it accessible
For children with fine motor skill issues or sensory aversion different types of materials may be needed. Fat pens or markers can help with fine motor difficulties. A slant board can hep position the paper so it is easier to draw. Coban wrap can be used to help the child grip a pen or pencil. Home-made play doh recipes can be substituted for traditional play doh for children who have allergies to wheat.
Spend the Time
It is important to spend enough time with each child and to have patience to explain the process. This means art activities should not be rushed and all who participate should have enough time to finish the activity. Pacing is necessary so as not to overwhelm a child. After all, art should be an enjoyable and pleasurable activity – not a chore.
Assist But Don’t Lead
As each child is unique in their own right, some autistic children may have extreme motor challenges. They might need physical assistance to do artwork. It is critical to let them take the lead and assist only when necessary. Sometimes hand-over-hand can help the child at first until they can do the project themselves. Encouraging them to do the work by themselves fosters independence. The project should not be frustrating or overwhelming. It is important to support the child in providing them what they may need. Watch for signs of frustration. Listen to the child.
Reinforcement is vital. Talking to the child while guiding them when they are creating art work can be helpful. Although some autistic children may have trouble listening to you while creating. Be aware of the needs of the individual child. Tell the child each art work is special and unique because in truth, art is about the creative process and not the outcome.
Variety aids those who have short-attention spans
The attention span of children with autism and learning disabilities may be short so you can expect them to become distracted. To counteract this, create variety in the artwork that the child is doing. You might do sand painting in the morning or go outdoors in the afternoon to collect rocks and leaves. Keeping them interested in art activities is as challenging as helping them express their thoughts and feelings through the process of creating their art. Short time-out breaks can help an overwhelmed child.
Be aware of distractions in the environment
Loud noises, bright lights, and busy rooms can overwhelm an autistic child. Be aware of distractions such as the humming of an air conditioner or construction outside. Smell of glues or play-doh can effect a child who has issues around smells. Be aware that a child who is not compliant or acting out may be reacting to their environment. Listen to the child.
Work on Social Skills through the project
Working on collaborative art projects can help autistic children socialize. Encourage children to talk to one another during the process. For those who are nonverbal the act of working on a project with other children can help that child feel part of a larger group.
Explain/Show the Results
Once art work is done, let the child hang their work themselves. Ask the child to try to explain what they have created and what it represents to them. As verbal communication is an issue with autism and learning disabilities, you can also pitch in from time to time when children cannot express themselves and merely point at their art. Many times too, when a child is at a loss for words or find no words to express how they feel, an embrace, look or approving gesture may acknowledge their creation.
Teach the child to clean up after each project. Allow time for clean-up time. Learning to take care of supplies and cleaning up is instructive. Having clean brushes for the next project is important.
Encourage the child to share their art with others. This creates social opportunities for the child to show what they have created and be acknowledged for what they can do.
Art Therapies and Learning Disabilities
Making Art Special – A Curriculum for Special Needs Art
10 Art Projects with Children
Effects of Instructional Art Projects on Children’s Behavioral Responses and Creativity Within an Emergency Shelter
American Art Therapy Educational Requirements
5 Things I learned about Autism from my Art Therapist
100 Art Therapy exercises
Art therapy for autism
Other Art of Autism blogs you may like:
The Value of Art Therapy for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Why Children on the Autism Spectrum Benefit from Art Therapy as a Required Service
Dr Stephen Shore: The Importance of Music and Art for Autistic People
How to teach your Autistic Child to Write