Students Painting in class

Using Art Therapy for Autistic Students

Through the creativity that comes with art therapy, students with autism spectrum disorder can use their imagination to improve skills, work through feelings, reduce stress, improve well-being, and express themselves to the world.

According to the Monarch Center for Autism, art “provides opportunities for positive experiences that can translate into enhanced classroom performance and increased ability to gain from educational services. Art therapy can also be adapted to support academic, social, speech and language, or emotional goals and objectives.”

It is important to remember that each child has unique abilities, strengths, and needs. The beauty of art is that all children can feel successful when they are given the chance to freely express themselves. Art should be enjoyable and accessible for all children.

Teachers that use art as an intervention for students with autism can do so to help their students increase their tolerance for stimuli they normally may avoid.

Of course, it is important to find things that work best for you and your students’ needs. I’ve found the best success when choosing activities where students can focus on the process rather than the outcome. Here are a few ideas I found that may help inspire a creative art journey:

Reflective Drawing to Music

Play different styles of music and allow the students to move a crayon, marker, or paintbrush across the paper as they respond to how the music makes them feel. If they feel like it, they can move their bodies as they create their art. Again, be mindful of your students’ sensory sensitivities when selecting music.

Playdough Sculptures

Playdough is a fabulous sensory material which makes it perfect for art, sensory work, fine-motor skills, and pretend play.

I love integrating art with other subjects like social studies and giving students the chance to create an artifact after our lessons. One way to do this is to have students choose a national symbol, like the Liberty Bell or Statue of Liberty, for example, to make with their playdough. Then they can do a “museum walk” around the classroom to view and learn from one another’s creations. The opportunities are endless!

If autistic students respond well to the additional stimuli, try making homemade playdoughs and add different colorings or scents such as: orange jello mix, lemon juice, cinnamon, peppermint, cocoa powder, etc.

Find a quick and easy recipe at Amazing K.

Emotion Colors and Draw

This activity involves showing students pictures of faces expressing different emotions. Studies Weekly has a fabulous Well-Being program with units on exploring emotions, what they look like, and how to identify and cope with them. The emotion pictures they use are perfect for all children.

Studies Weekly Well-Being Lesson on Emotions

Take turns picking an emotion picture and labeling it. Write the emotion name on the board, then invite students to make the same facial expression they see in the picture. Next, invite students to choose a crayon or marker color that they feel represents that emotion. (A variation of this is to have finger paints on hand for the child to use if they like the sensation of touching paint.) Have them choose a way to draw, scribble, or paint on paper with the chosen color to express that emotion. You can have some options drawn on the board as examples.

See an example of this strategy:

How I Feel Today illustration from Studies Weekly Well-Being

Emotion Colors and Lines:

    1. Pick one emotion.
    2. Write the emotion on a worksheet.
    3. Pick a color to represent the emotion
    4. Add color to worksheet
    5. Pick a line to represent the emotion
    6. Draw line on worksheet

Sand Art

The following two examples are by Petit Journey.

Sensory Tub Sand Drawing

This is a great sensory activity that you and your students can do together. It’s just like drawing pictures on a sandy beach.

Pour sand into the sensory tub until it is a few inches deep. Using their fingers, students draw pictures in the sand.

Because this activity produces “unfixed” art, the focus is on the process rather than the end result. Take a picture of it once it’s done for a memory keepsake.

Sand Painting

This activity is just like regular painting, only sand is mixed into the paint for an artistic effect. Provide students with a container for each sand paint color and see the magic start.

Another option is to use colored chalk and craft glue instead of paint. The end goal is to give students a chance to use their motor skills and paint with something that has a different texture than regular paint.

Because art therapy can benefit us all, children should have many opportunities to use artistic media. Doing so could open up a whole new world for autistic students and give them another way to express themselves and connect with others. They also may discover they have amazing artistic talents. So, find what works for you and your students. As you embark on your journeys in art, remember that “autism is not a disability — it is simply a different ability.”

I wish you all the best as you continue to actively pursue ways of helping all children thrive!

Warmly,

Debbie

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