Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Art therapy and ASD? No way!

I am a newbie blogger and when I asked my sister to read the following, she commented, " “your writing is way too technical, the blog needs to read like a friendly banter...u need to explain technical terms....this reads more like an extract from a paper....and very serious....apologies for the criticism...u may not agree....”

Guess what? I decided to go ahead and post it anyway ;). So here are my two cents on art therapy and ASD.

Working as an art therapist with children on the spectrum has been a hugely rewarding experience for me. Imagine a 12 year old non-verbal child with autism severely anxious and with extreme sensory issues unable to sit in one place for more than a few seconds, let alone make art and then after a year of art therapy, this same child sits for 30 minutes at a time engaged in art making activity! (Having said that, in the course of that one year there were other therapies that the child was involved in, the benefit of which cannot be disregarded).

So how may art therapy work for individuals/children on the spectrum? We know that  children with autism have significant deficits in the area of imagination and symbolic thought so then how can image making (which is by and large how we understand art ) be therapeutic for a population whose artwork may be repetitive, literal and their abstract thinking compromised. In order to understand how, let me give you a very brief insight into art therapy and later talk about it in the context of ASD. Broadly speaking art therapy is a process of expressing the inner-self through creative expression in the presence of an art therapist who facilitates the expression and guides the client to reflect upon his or her artwork in order to gain insight and self-awareness into his/her issues. The process of art making is much more important than the product itself, which could be a scribble or a masterpiece, for its value lies in its ability to tap into the sub-conscious of the individual making the art. Self-awareness and insight into ones problems then leads to working towards a resolution of the issues at hand and so on and so forth. Essentially art therapy’s roots lie in psychodynamic psychology (in layman’s term which means  accessing the subconscious and digging into deep seated issues in the individual’s past ).

Again you may think, self awareness and insight would be overly ambitious for a child on the spectrum who may not even have the capacity for them; a child who may have very limited receptive or expressive language or who may have over riding sensory issues that hamper his daily functioning. The beauty of art therapy is that it can be adapted to a wide range of client specific needs. Therefore, where ASD is concerned, ‘developmental art therapy' comes into play. Developmental art therapy takes into consideration the entire sensory and developmental profile of the child and the therapeutic approach is tailored to that profile. Optimal benefit for the child is achieved if the art therapist can work in conjunction with the occupational therapist to better understand the sensory needs of the child. In any case if that is not possible, in my opinion, it is essential to have access to the child’s specialist’s reports before embarking on the art therapy path to avoid unnecessary distress to the child.

Art making is a multi-sensory activity. It involves all five senses and can engage the entire body into the process of art making through large body movements as well as motion. A large variety of art material with different textures, tactile qualities, smells and nowadays even taste (edible play dough) is used in the session to facilitate sensory regulation and modulation. Art materials have inherent qualities in them that lend them to sensory regulation. For instance, pencil lends itself to control, paint to emotional expression and clay to grounding. The art therapist incorporates the knowledge of these materials into the session to modulate the over or under sensitive child.

This is only just one aspect of the developmental approach in art therapy. Other aspects of development can be incorporated further into the art therapy session besides sensory regulation. Communication and social skills development  through art making is another area that can be targeted with children on the spectrum. During art therapy sessions, I was able to witness a friendship develop between a 12 year old girl with Asperger’s and an 8 year old with developmental delays. This friendship resulted into a few playdates beyond the therapy centre much to the delight of the girl’s mothers.

For most children art making provides a fun break from their structured, sometimes stressful therapy sessions. Art therapy sessions can be loosely structured to incorporate fun and play. They provide a safe space for the child to vent, release stress and express themselves in an environment where the only expectation from them is to be who they are. Most sessions will end in a creative product and it is delightful to see children proudly presenting their creations to their caregivers.

Hopefully I have managed to give you some insight into art therapy and ASD. I have not touched on the psycho-dynamic aspect of  art therapy as that is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that the multi-sensory aspect of art making and the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship of the child with the therapist can work on many different levels for an individual/child with ASD.

Next blog will be way more fun I promise ;) ;)

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