Art Therapy for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

I’m often found sitting on the floor with a couple of children, painting, engaging in sensory play, laughing, using our imaginations and building worlds. To the untrained eye, I might look like a bigger, laughing kid, who’s lucky enough to play for work. But there’s so much more going on behind the glitter and giggles. 

Art therapy is very different from “doing arts and crafts.” Allied Health Professions Australia gives a pretty good definition, telling us “art therapists use visual art-making, drama, dance and movement to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.” This means it can be particularly magical for working with children on the autism spectrum, due to their differing sensory-processing needs, ways of perceiving the world, and methods of communication. 

Art gives us tools other than language to express ourselves. 

Some of the areas art therapy can help children on the autism spectrum include:

  • Communication through art expression
  • Imagination and abstract thinking
  • Relationship building
  • Emotional Regulation
  • Sensory integration
  • Increasing empathy
  • Developmental maturation
  • Recreation and leisure skills
  • Visual/spatial abilities
  • Developing fine motor skills 
  • Developing a sense of self 

While co-creating art, the focus is on creative expression to develop the child’s imagination, communication, ability to regulate themselves and socialisation skills.

Children are encouraged to experience art-making by engaging with different materials. This allows them to gain insight and understand their feelings, at their own pace. During this process I can also role model positive behaviour, draw their attention to how materials feel, how we feel, and discuss scenarios and role play. 

Art is a wonderful communication tool. Verbal communication can be a challenge for kids on the spectrum, but we know that just because a child can’t speak, doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Through art therapy we can help children express their fears, anger, frustrations, joy and love. By creating safe spaces of creativity and play, we allow children to just be themselves, feel accepted and tell us about their inner and outer worlds through the things they create. 

Art therapy helps children learn to self-regulate. 

Emotional regulation is something all children need help with, but kids on the spectrum often have the added challenge of sensory-integration difficulties. Sensory overload can make it more difficult to understand when emotions are building, and quite often it can seem kids on the spectrum become easily upset. In reality, they’re experiencing sounds louder, contending with an altered sense of their body in space, an under or overly-sensitive sense of touch, and a different level of visual intensity. 

Art therapy helps us engage a child’s senses in more helpful way and give them an understanding of their experiences. We can also create cues to remind children of their tools for down-regulating. These tools are taught during the art-making process and practised through integration into activities. 

Incorporating sand play and play therapy with the creative arts helps children learn skills for dealing with difficult situations. Children may not be able to tell you specifically what’s challenging them when they’re with other children. But playing with them is a good way of finding out. Simulating the frustrations of having to take turns, lose, have blocks topple over, or someone else using the dinosaur you wanted, gives an opportunity to teach skills for when those things inevitably happen. This is helpful in the child’s everyday life, but also contributes to deeper skills of perspective-taking and the development of empathy.

All behaviour is communication. A meltdown is a request for better skills for dealing with disappointments. A child may be mad at me for a bit if the play feels less fun momentarily, but that’s an opportunity to coach them through feeling frustrated. 

When I first speak to parents, they the tend to say their child likes art and they want to engage them in a therapy that won’t require dragging them to appointments, kicking and screaming. Many children on the autism spectrum tend to be more receptive to information that’s experienced visually. Art therapy can increase their willingness to engage, because it doesn’t rely primarily on words to communicate feelings and thoughts. This enables children to be heard on a new level of communication. 

Having fun and engaging in this experience can ultimately help regulate the senses, emotions and behaviours.

I love working with kids on the spectrum. I’m passionate about supporting them to gain tools that will allow them to be happy and safe in the world, without having to change who they are. 

In the world of Rainbow Muse we’re committed to celebrating diversity and helping all kids have a sense of self, while learning to be their best selves.

Chenai will be joining the team at Mullum Road Clinic on Wednesdays. Please call Croydon Reception on 03 9725 1860