Everyone on the spectrum is different and I enjoy getting to know the strengths and difficulties of the individual and using the arts to support sensory integration, self-expression and flexibility.
Art for Autism
I follow recommendations made by Van Lith and Jessica Stallings in their recent research project, establishing professional guidelines for art therapy with children with autism. This includes working with the child at their pace and structuring sessions so as to reduce anxiety and support growth and wellbeing. Often sessions with people on the spectrum involve a combination of structured activity and free art making, play and role play. The use of structured activities allows me to work through specific areas of difficulty. For example, if a child is struggling to make friends, I would design a number of activities involving emotion recognition and social communication. These activities are then employed in a multimodal way throughout the course of therapy.
There are a number of studies supporting the strengths of a multimodal approach for ASD. An integrative arts form of multimodal learning might incorporate exploring the same topic or issue variously through sandplay, clay, puppets, painting, storytelling, role play et cetera.
There is a common misconception that people on the spectrum lack empathy and imagination. This has not been my experience of individuals on the spectrum. However, sometimes this perceived lack is actually a dimension of communication difficulties or due to insufficient practice sharing these self-parts and characteristics with others. I have persistently found the arts to be a fantastic means of exploring, enhancing and encouraging the imagination. Empathy is a facet of the imagination, it is about imagining into another person's dimension. Thus, as self-understanding, creativity, self-expression and imagination are supported through the arts and the therapeutic relationship, the capacity to empathise and to communicate empathic feelings can also be supported. This is often an area that I focus on with children on the spectrum.
The Importance of the Imagination
The arts provide unique opportunities for sensory experiences. While Occupational Therapy provides a specialised form of sensory integration, the arts can be used to explore and support sensory experiences and build tolerance, especially in areas of tactile sensitivity.
Integrative Arts Psychotherapy incorporates use of the whole body through drama, movement and sensory awareness. These practices can be used to support an awareness of the body in space and in relationship to others (modelled by the therapist).
Emotion Recognition & Communication
A common feature in early intervention for autism is the use of the arts to support recognition and labelling of emotions. This is fundamental to self expression, communication and social relationships and can reduce acting out behaviours.
Painting, drawing, play dough, drama, movement, sound and play can all be used as multimodal means of exploring emotions. In art therapy this is done in the context of a relationship with the therapist, the aim being to support emotional literacy and the generalisation of these skills into social relationships.
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