Huma's blog: reflections on autism, art therapy, parenting, mental health issues and all about Mo!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The 'M' word nobody wants to talk about

I had the pleasure of meeting with an old colleague today, after many years. While we were catching up on times past, we happened to chance upon a topic about which we both share very similar views.  The question I am referring to is one that most people are either shy to discuss or wish did not exist. However, the fact is that the reality of the ‘M' word or dare I elaborate…the phenomenon of MASTURBATION within the context of children with different needs, cannot be ignored. The reason why I have capitalized the word is not to cause outrage or evoke disgust but to emphasize that it is an act that most males (at least) indulge in (please note that I said most not all) and that it is NORMAL to do so. I am not aiming for a religious or philosophical debate here, simply stating what is factual. Then why is it that when it comes to our children with differences, developmental or physical, we expect forced abstinence, denial and shame the subject? Why do we stigmatize a natural drive that is considered normal for neurotypicals but unacceptable for the neurodiverse?

I will not deny that when our children with different abilities are going through puberty, masturbation can pose many challenges. For obvious reasons, it is an act that calls for extreme privacy, and without question, no parent wants to witness their child engage in it or exhibit it. Unfortunately, with our special children a lot of times the discretion that we ideally desire, is not possible but that does not mean that the event cannot be handled sensibly. 

Instead of getting rid of the so-called problem (which it is not because it is normal) there are workable solutions to the issue. I found a solution that worked for my son, and I am confident that with the help of empathetic professionals and supportive parenting so can others who are facing the same dilemma.

In my case, I set specific boundaries around the act for my son who was allowed to indulge in it in a specified room beyond which there were consequences. With a few hiccups initially, he began to understand his limits, and we found a resolution to the problem.

Imagine the child whose sexual drive is suppressed continuously and finds no means of satisfaction? It is highly likely that the frustration will manifest in inappropriate sexual behaviours and/or acts of anger and aggression.

There may not be such a thing as a perfect solution, but there is always a way of handling what may seem like an insurmountable problem provided there is acceptance accompanied by perseverance and compassion.

Suggested reading:

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Let your child's art do the talking!

When I tell people that I am an art therapist, more often than not I get a puzzled look followed by the now familiar question “What does that mean? Do you teach art?”. By now I should be miffed by this recurrent inquiry, but I am not because I get another opportunity to talk about my favourite subject. Moreover, every time I talk about it, I realize what an amazing thing it is to be able to achieve mental well-being through art making even if you have no artistic skills. That is why art therapy is for everyone from a child who can make marks on paper to an elderly person who may not be able to do so due to old age or illness.

All individuals with any level of ability, emotional or mental need or desire for mental well-being can do art therapy. It can be done individually, as a family and in groups. The only prerequisite is the will to discover, heal and learn with a trained art therapist who is there to guide you through the process of art-making and healing.

I work with children and adolescents with diverse needs. Some may have developmental differences, some are experiencing emotional ups and downs, others may have familial problems, issues at school or in some cases serious mental health concerns. An art therapist can address the individual needs of each child by tailoring the session specifically to them.

When I work with a child with autism, I am not only concerned with their emotional well- being, but I am also aware of their sensory needs. It is not possible to focus on the mental health of a child who is not well regulated. Therefore, I use art materials to induce sensory modulation alongside the emotional work that is required. Engaging with art materials allows the child an opportunity to achieve sensory regulation as well as provides them with an opening for communication and expression. For a non-verbal child or one who has difficulty communicating this can often be a liberating experience.

Sometimes I get a defiant teenager who is aggressive at home and unhappy at school. The parents are at a loss because their child will not talk to the school counsellor or the talk therapist. They come for art therapy as their last resort. I tell them “the good news is, that your child does not necessarily have to talk in the session”. All they need to do is be present and the rest usually follows. The child who may be reluctant to make art, in the beginning, is usually drawn to art materials and will eventually start engaging with them and the therapist. Sometimes, if there are familial issues, the parents or parent will be asked to join in the sessions. Once again, a conversation may not be necessary as the artwork can do the talking.

It is the process of art making that lies at the core of the art therapy approach. The art product is not judged for aesthetic quality; there is no right or wrong you can do. The art therapist provides the safety and containment needed to confront difficult and sometimes very painful emotions. Art making can tap into the innermost aspects of the psyche that words may not have access to. Children especially, cannot be expected to know why they are feeling depressed or angry or defiant. However, the images they make can tell us pretty much what is going on.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Channelizing aggression in children through art

A 5 year old's expression of her internal trauma
Aggression in children could be a symptom of underlying issues that find external expression in inappropriate verbal and/or physical behaviour. The common course of treatment for anger management in children is behaviour modification and in extreme cases medication. These approaches have their merits and can help in averting disastrous consequences for the child and his/her family. However, focusing on behavioural techniques in isolation may inadvertently conceal the psycho-emotional problems that are at the root of the behaviours and may be a call for help from the child, rather than a deliberate attempt to cause harm.

Children lack the ability for metacognition or the capacity to think about their thoughts. Simply put, they may have no clue as to why they act out, transgress limits, push buttons and indulge in inappropriate behaviors beyond what is considered typical. Amongst the many reasons they may be doing so, attachment issues, familial problems, stress related to school and peers, learning differences and developmental challenges may be implicated. Thus, it seems rather one sided to expect external compliance from a child who may be suffering emotionally, without addressing the internal aspect of the matter.

I find art therapy to be most efficacious when it comes to addressing psycho-emotional problems in children as it has the capacity to tap into the hidden content of a child’s psyche that may not be accessible through words. Art making can by pass defence mechanisms that prevent access to deep-seated conflicts.

Very importantly, art therapists work through metaphors in the child’s artwork thus, if some trauma or difficult emotional content surfaces through art making, it can be processed in a safe and non-confrontational way. Art therapy is a safe therapeutic modality in that it avoids re-traumatization of the individual from exposure to difficult memories.

Art therapists are also trained to direct negative emotions into creative acts through prudent use of art material. Clay may be pounded or kneaded, scratched and poked in order to express anger or frustration just as paint may be splashed or paper torn and crushed to channelize aggressive affect into appropriate expression.

Art making, whether in the form of seemingly random scribbles and doodles or skillful images and sculptures is an expression of the unconscious. Thus, to partake of art therapy absolutely no skill in art making is necessary. In fact I have come across children who do not show any inclination to draw or paint yet can be tempted to engage in acts of creation that lead to inner expression.

A child cannot convey with words what they are not aware of; and some children may not have the ability to speak. You will be amazed to find what can be achieved through the simplest forms of creativity and relational art making with an art therapist.

Time and time again I am asked if art therapy and art class are one and the same? Once again, I will repeat that ONLY a Master’s level art therapist can conduct art therapy. Most art therapists are registered with regional boards of art therapy associations and have gone through hundreds if not thousands of hours of clinical practice.