Monarch Center for Autism Cleveland Ohio

Art Therapy

Art Therapy220 is a psychological discipline that specializes in using visual art making and the creative process to help clients bring about therapeutic change. It is typically referred for situations in which words are difficult (ex: grief and loss), if there is a mind-body relationship to the nature of a person's trauma (ex: sexual abuse, PTSD), or for clients who are inept with words (ex: children, persons with a communication disability). Art therapy is also often sought out by clients who seek a more tangibly productive therapy (literally “rolling up your sleeves”), enjoy expressing themselves visually (artists, architects, crafters, etc.), or for whom talk therapy has not achieved the desired outcome and want to try something new. Art therapy is generally described as a highly illuminating, enjoyable, and unique experience.

becky-in-ArtThere is a commonly held belief that art making is beneficial to people (particularly children) with Autism Spectrum Disorder due to their intense sensory needs (especially visual and tactile self-stimulation) and disregulation, often nonverbal nature, and need for more visual, concrete, hands-on therapies. ASD therapists of all kinds acknowledge this and, despite lack of appropriate training, many attempt to include therapeutic art making into their clients' activities on a regular basis. Despite limitations such as the difficulty of standardized assessment (due to the need for individual adaptations), the near impossibility of quantifying the experience of making art, and the small number of art therapists publishing on the topic, art therapy literature on the subject is large enough to demonstrate that it is an effective, clinically-sound treatment option (especially when supplemented with studies from the fields of art, art education, psychology, and other creative arts therapies).

There are six major ASD treatment goal areas that art therapists are best qualified to treat:

  1. Imagination/abstract thinking deficits
    One of the classic characteristics of autism, imagination deficits, can be addressed by art therapists in a way that is without parallel in other fields. Art projects tailored by art therapists to the needs of a person with ASD provide a visual, concrete format in which to develop abstract thinking skills, express creativity, and increase flexibility.
  2. Sensory regulation and integration
    Art therapy can provide safe, enjoyable sensory integration and exploration experiences that help create calm, regulated bodies and then move beyond mere exercises to help an individual incorporate their experiences into a product that helps to continue treatment. In art therapy, the process (making art, the therapeutic relationship) results in a product (the art piece) that furthers more process and provides a visual history of therapeutic progress. Improving regulation also often improves imagination (by un-hindering it) as well.
  3. Emotions/Self-expression
    Art therapists are trained in counseling techniques (many if not most obtain a counseling license) and their “tandem” use of visual expression and verbal counseling is definitely an asset when it comes to working with people with a communication disability. Having autism is mentally, physically, and emotionally stressful and many people living with it (particularly those on the “higher” end of the spectrum) can benefit from productive ways of expressing their feelings. [Self-expression is similar to but not synonymous with the often loosely-used term “communication”, which has a specific meaning in the ASD field (spoken, written, signed, or gestured communication); drawing can be used as a communication tool but it is not preferred.]
  4. Developmental Growth
    A bit of a catch-all term, developmental growth as a treatment goal means targeting delayed or atypical aspects of a person's development that are hindering that person's full potential. Autism is a pervasive, neurodevelopmental disorder that disrupts development in several areas; art therapists usually work on improving artistic/drawing development, fine motor skills, and social/relational skills. This is an important and often intensely pushed treatment goal when working with small children with ASD.
  5. Recreation/Leisure skills
    Developing productive leisure skills is no small goal for people with ASD. Self-direction, industriousness, patience, and pride in one's work are important life skills that require a great deal of teaching (best done through motivating activities). It is also a popular reason for referrals (parents want their child to be able to benefit from recreational art-making, and feel that a therapist will be better trained to provide adaptations, behavioral support, and more meaningful goals).
  6. Visual-spatial deficits
    Drawing is a useful tool for both revealing and addressing visual-spatial deficits such as mental rotation and improving hand-eye coordination. People with autism sometimes exhibit exceptional or atypical visual-spatial development (for example, excellent mental mapping skills but poor drawing or mental rotation skills). As with the other treatment goals listed above, it is the individual's motivation to “play” with art materials that makes art therapy an attractive format to address profound deficits.

ilco-03-02-07-drawing4These six treatment areas are the “hats” that an art therapist wears when working with a person with autism. One of these hats might look similar to a sensory integration (SI) therapist, or to a psychologist, or to an occupational therapist, etc. but art therapists' training allows them to incorporate all six goals simultaneously. Different goals will be more or less pertinent depending on the individual's specific diagnosis (both deficits and interests), the goals of the facility and/or family, and the expertise of the art therapist.


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