Thursday, February 11, 2016

Social skills art therapy group can be a lot of fun!

The joint artwork

Running an art therapy social skills group for children on the spectrum is not only rewarding, it is a lot of fun as well. Members of the group can compliment each others strengths and weaknesses resulting in benefits for both sides.

Take the case of Ayla (pseudonym) and Tariq (pseudonym) who constitute a small group of two. Ayla (girl) is 13 years old and Tariq (boy) is 8. They have high functioning autism; possibly both would qualify as having Aspergers before the diagnosis was wiped out in the latest addition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Anyway to give you an idea of their abilities, both children are in age appropriate grades in schools that offer some degree of support and have good language skills. Their speech is semantically and syntactically correct but both face challenges in the area of pragmatic language. Ayla and Tariq are rigid in their own ways but the latter is much more challenged in seeing things from the other person’s point of view or perspective taking, whereas Tariq is considerably more perceptive.

They were put together in a group for art therapy as their cognitive profiles are quite similar and so are their needs, in varying degrees.

In their most recent session both Ayla and Tariq were asked to share the same piece of paper to draw something. Usually they are allowed to choose their own paper but that day I had pasted a large sheet on the table in preparation of the session. They were given freedom to choose from a range of art materials but both opted for paint. Before directing them to this joint exercise I made sure to explain what was expected of them. For instance, I told them that they could use any part/amount of the paper, draw anything that they liked and move around the table, change places etc.

The idea behind such a directive was not only to study the dynamics between the two children but to take the opportunity to encourage communication, sharing and tolerance. So for instance, both children were encouraged to share one palette of paint which they both filled up with pigment, as well as brushes from the same container. Sharing paint with another person is not an easy task especially if one does not like to mix colours and the other does. It is a great lesson in tolerance and sharing.

 Once Ayla and Tariq began to paint, the challenge to have them work as a team became harder. Both children made a rigid boundary between their artworks. They divided the paper into two exact halves, treating it as two separate sheets rather than one.  Ayla was much more conscious of her boundaries than Tariq who tried to sneak some strokes of paint to her side but she firmly told him to stay away. As was expected both children also stuck to their own ideas of what they wanted to make, resulting in two very different artworks on one piece of paper. They were allowed to continue for half of the session to work on their own sides as long as they shared the equipment. Tariq was more curious about Ayla’s art work which was very schematic whereas his own seemed to veer more on the abstract. He attempted to make a few comments on her imagery but Ayla was only concerned that he not invade her space and remained focused on her work.

Halfway through the session I decided to stir up things a bit. I told both children to swap places to work on each others artwork and try to enhance it according to the wishes of the other. The idea was not to cause unnecessary aggravation but to challenge the rigid boundaries of both participants as both children would surely leave their distinct mark on each others artwork. For instance Tariq was asked what he wanted Ayla to do on his side and vice versa.  Thus, he told her to paint one hundred windows on his artwork which resembled a brown rectangle and she told him to fill up the white areas in her landscape with  the colour blue, making sure he did not paint over any of her work.

This occurred after considerable resistance from Ayla’s side initially as she was upset that she had to share her artwork with Tariq, whereas Tariq was more compliant but a little nervous about making Ayla angry if he did not paint according to her wishes.

Naturally Ayla did not paint a hundred windows and Tariq ended up spilling a few dots of paint on Ayla’s landscape though the poor guy tried to be very careful.

At the end of the session both children were asked to talk about the artwork as one piece, since Tariq’s side looked like a building and Ayla’s could have been the garden on the side of the building. Both parties really struggled with this instruction and were unable to integrate both pieces of work into one, even with prompts. I ended the session with praise for both and a ball game.

The session above laid the foundation for the ones that will follow in future. It highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of both children which will be targeted to promote a friendship/camaraderie between them. The hope is that the learning within the art room, the positive and sometimes negative experiences will better equip these children for social settings outside the art room.

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