Friday, April 20, 2012

Autism and the Arts

Warning: This post might be a little wordy. However, I think the information is useful and interesting.
Thursday I did a presentation at UAB (University of Alabama in Birmingham) entitled A Different Point of View: A Discussion of Autism and the Arts. It went so well! I had a great and attentive audience and we had a really good discussion after the presentation. A few people who weren't able to attend have asked me for more details about the presentation, so here's an overview!

Involvement with the arts can have great therapeutic benefit for anyone. Specifically, though, we talked about autism and the characteristics of a person with autism and how the arts can be used as part of their therapy. For brevity's sake I'll just briefly outline some benefits of art (as well as specifics of why they are benefits to someone with autism). Then, I'll give some ideas for creating art with someone with autism (or other disabilities as well).

Social benefits:

Most arts do not require language skills- Many individuals with autism have a hard time with language and communication. Art can be a way for them to relay their emotions without needing to speak.

If done in a group setting art can give everyone in the group a sense of community and common ground- Many individuals with Asperger's syndrome (a syndrome on the autism spectrum, but usually differentiated by strong language skills) suffer from depression because they realize that they are different and would like to belong, however their difficulty in understanding emotions and relationships makes it tough. Art done as a group can help that.

Art in different forms can help them to understand emotions- Some people with autism have an easier time understanding emotions portrayed in books and movies than in real life. I knew a little boy who loved Dr. Seuss and when he didn't like a situation he would yell, "I DO NOT LIKE GREEN EGGS AND HAM! I DO NOT LIKE THEM, SAM I AM!" The written word helped him to communicate his emotions.

The art community may be more accepting of the unique qualities of someone on the autism spectrum- There is a documentary called Autism: The Musical about a woman who discovered that people she hired from the local theatre made better progress with her autistic son than many therapists she'd hired. She ended up starting a theatre group for children with autism.

Physical benefits:

Art can help develop motor skills- Many people with autism have trouble with fine or gross (large) motor skills. Fine motor skills can be developed through painting, drawing, cutting paper, making jewelry, etc. Gross motor skills can be developed through dance and theatre

It can be a way to introduce new smells and textures gently- Some people with autism have a strong dislike for certain textures or smells. If, for example, a person dislikes gritty textures, art can be used to help them get over their aversion. You might first have them finger paint with smooth paints, then, if they're enjoying it, you can gradually add just a little bit of sand or salt to the paint. If they start reacting badly to the texture, you can backtrack by having them use a brush instead of their fingers. Eventually, you may even get them to paint on sandpaper.

Behavioral benefits:

Art can be used to either calm and focus a hyper individual, or relax an uptight individual. More on how, specifically, below.

Art can be an outlet for favorite subjects or topic or give them a chance to be as repetitive or detail-oriented as they like-
Many people with autism or Asperger's have a favorite topic. They usually have volumes of knowledge about that one thing, however that may be the only thing they want to talk about. Also, sometimes that thing is not socially appropriate. However, art can give them some freedom. While some people might say that they should not have any opportunity to explore their obsessions, I think that everyone should have a place where they are allowed to be exactly who they are. I knew one boy who was obsessed with toilets... he knew the model number and the flow volume of every toilet on the market and that's all he wanted to talk about. Obviously, that's not a very socially acceptable topic to always discuss. However, he could have painted pictures of toilets and no one would have batted an eye. Us artists sometimes paint weird things. After all, we all know how obsessed I am with my sink and the shininess of my faucet!

Ok, so now some ideas for getting someone with autism involved in art so that they can receive the most benefits possible:
1) Reduce distractions. If possible avoid florescent lights and loud rooms if the person you are working with is easily overwhelmed or distracted. If they are VERY easily overwhelmed, start with familiar items. For example, if they have never used paint before, try ketchup and mustard instead.
2) To calm and focus someone with autism (or anyone, really) don't give them a large canvas and paint. That will only make them more unfocused. Instead give them a small piece of paper and a pencil and maybe a small item for them to draw. Conversely, if he or she is uptight, a canvas and paint may work well.
3) Follow his or her lead. Making someone create is not going to be an enjoyable experience for anyone. Maybe he or she isn't enjoying painting, but is interested in music. Explore all your options.
4) Is he or she practical? Some people may not see the point in creating a painting to hang on the wall, but they may like making something that they can use. Some ideas are: A name plate or "keep out" sign for their room, a bowl, decorating a picture frame, decorating a table or chair, etc. I know you can come up with more!
5) Make sure the setting is safe, both emotionally and physically.
6) Be aware that they may or may not be ok with you in their personal space.
7) Accommodate any physical limitations. If they have trouble using their hands, don't make them make jewelry with tiny beads. You want this to be fun! You can gently add in challenges later at their own pace. There are paint brushes with large, short, rounded handles for easier grip and control as well as other adaptive art supplies on the market.

That's it! If you're in the Birmingham area, VSA of Alabama is a GREAT place to volunteer (all the pictures in this post are courtesy of VSA alabama. I work with them a lot). They have all kinds of arts programming for children and adults with disabilities or terminal illnesses. VSA is a national organization, so no matter where you are, you probably have a local VSA affiliate near you.

So what about y'all? Any of you work with special needs? Have any great ideas, tips, or projects that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them!

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