The Surprising Similarities Between Art Therapy and Autism Support Dogs

By Amanda Ronan

In my first years of teaching in the early 2000s, very few students had been identified as having Autism. Throughout my ten years of teaching, though, that number began to grow rapidly, as Autism diagnoses and awareness began to increase. I felt like I knew so little about how to help my students with special needs. But those first few years of having students with ASD in my class were not as challenging as they might have been under different circumstances, because, the families of these students became my teachers. They were seeking therapies and resources outside of the school walls, and they were the experts in their children’s needs. Most of what I did when working with those students with Autism was in support of the therapies they were receiving outside of class. Of course I had the help and expertise of the special educators on staff, but the information the families relayed about their individual children was a source of data I couldn’t have done without. I wasn’t properly trained in implementing services for a wide variety of individual special needs. So, learning from parents and students about the therapies and social skills classes they took outside of school helped me to integrate meaningful differentiation and experiences on the individual level for my students with ASD.

Two of those therapies are the focus of what I’m sharing today–art therapy and service dogs. See, these seemingly different approaches to working with kids with ASD had some overlap in the results they produced. Of course, as a stressed out teacher, I didn’t see those similarities at a time. Instead, what I knew was that when parents would share these skills and findings from therapy with me about their children they were giving me the keys to know and support their children as individuals. Only now, looking back at the experience of teaching children with ASD who had support outside of school, do I understand how what seem like totally different approaches could lead to similar results. So, here’s what I know now.

  1. Art therapy and support animals help with sensory regulation.

Art therapy introduces techniques to students to help regulate their emotions. It can help kids figure out ways to work through big feelings that arise. Sometimes this therapy looks like something as simple as squeezing a ball of clay or scribbling with a certain kind of marker. Art therapy also introduces kids to tactile sensations that might be new or uncomfortable for them. They work through those feelings with the support of the therapist and find ways to cope.

Support dogs can help kids with sensory regulation, too. But, instead of squeezing clay or learning to tolerate the feeling of fingerpaint, dogs can help students practice self-soothing behaviors. A child might find pleasure in brushing the dog. Giving commands and having the dog comply gives children with ASD a way to focus on something outside of themselves, rather than getting caught up in the intense emotions they’re feeling and not always able to communicate.

  1. Art therapy and support animals act as communication facilitators.

Art communicates more than words ever can, and for children with ASD, that’s even more true. Art therapy acts as a way for students to express themselves nonverbally. By creating art and imagery based on how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, students communicate in ways that others can understand.

If you’ve ever had a dog or even spent time with one, you know how easy they are to talk to. Dogs don’t talk back. They don’t push you for an answer you’re not ready to give. They don’t judge your communication style. Support dogs are especially patient, loving, and responsive. Children with ASD learn to give dogs commands, but they also learn to whisper and talk to dogs in ways that they don’t always feel comfortable doing with humans. In addition, dogs are non-verbal, so children with ASD have to learn to read their cues. Kids learn when the dog wants to go outside or needs some space away from the family. And because dogs are so easy to love, they bring the whole family together. Children with ASD who were once distant from their siblings learn to talk about the dog and the dog’s needs as an entry-point to family conversation.

  1. Art therapy and support dogs help children focus on process over product.

Art therapy is focused on the creative process and exploration. The final product is simply a nice bonus to what children with ASD gain through tapping into their emotions, communication skills, and sensory aversions. It is in the process of making art and exploring mediums that children experience the world through movement and sensation. This focus on process also helps children with ASD control stress and anxiety, as well as build self esteem. Board certified art therapist Dr. Laura JJ Dessaur says, “ . . . a child with ASD can use the creative process to enhance competency and mastery, allowing for positive development of their self-esteem and relationship skills.

Caring for a support dog is a practice in patience, routine, and daily processes. There is no final “product” when it comes to a dog. The processes associated with service animals can fit easily into the routine-oriented schema of many people with ASD. Feeding, walking, playtime, teaching commands, and grooming are all highly-structured routines. In general, people with Autism are highly motivated by routines that have clear beginnings and endings. Sometimes, people with ASD can become obsessed with these routines. But dogs offer just enough variety that the structure can be more flexible, allowing the child with ASD to focus on what care the dog needs and not whether the task is completed in exactly the same way each time.

  1. Art therapy and support dogs can decrease self-harming behaviors.

Self harm is a nonverbal way of communicating and coping with overwhelming emotions. It provides temporary relief from the feelings and so is often repeated. Art therapy seeks to replace the self-harming behaviors with other processes or rituals. Art can be both creative and destructive. So sometimes art therapy includes ripping, cutting, or crushing, all behaviors that can replace self-harm. Art therapy also teaches distraction and relaxation techniques to help children with ASD move away from self-harm.

Support dogs can be trained to soothe children during depressive and self-harm situations. The dog can learn everything from simply putting a paw on the child’s lap to distract them or remind them to use other techniques, to physically jump up and interrupt the self harm. In addition, support dogs can be trained to lie across children during a panic or self-harm episode, the weight of the dogs acting as a calming mechanism.

My former students with ASD were supported by families and non-school based therapies and programs, including art therapy and specially-trained dogs. I had to learn from the results of these supports how to work with my students. But teachers of students with ASD today have a lot more school-based support than ever before. Many special educators and behavior analysts now focus on how to best support the individual needs of students with Autism. You’ll even find art therapy and support dogs on some school campuses today.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since then, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to homeschooling moms, writing blogs, long-form articles, curricula, and educational guides. In addition, she is the author of the YA series, My Brother is a Robot, and an ebook for teachers, A Fresh Look at Formative Assessment.

2 Comments

  • I have a dog at home who is not support-dog-qualifiied or therapy-dog-qualified in any way, but I still identified with a lot of the points you were making here, most particularly using the dog as an entry point into conversations. Everyone asks about the dog, and I’m happy to talk about him. I also find him helpful in ways that might not be obvious from a school-based perspective… He gets me out of the house when I’m too depressed to get dressed, or my executive functioning is too shot to shower. He gets me to the store to buy dog food when I would otherwise would otherwise have just ordered take out – once I’m already at the store it’s easier to buy human food. And most importantly, he is very, very, fluffy 😛

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