February 13, 2017

Child Therapy: Art and Autism

Art therapy is a mental health profession that promotes mental and emotional growth through art. Creating a beautiful piece of art is not the main goal of therapy, but a great bonus! Art therapy is focused on encouraging children to explore and express themselves using art. Although speech and occupational therapists are not trained art therapists, they often incorporate art into their therapy sessions

Art therapy has shown to be especially beneficial for children with autism. Common characteristics of autism include problems with communication, repetitive or compulsive behaviors, trouble with sensory processing, and social impairment. Art therapists often create goals based on making these characteristics functional.

Communication Needs:

Communicating difficulties is one of the hallmark symptoms of children with autism. Children may struggle communicating their wants and needs through verbal expressions. Art is an outlet that allows children to express themselves without spoken language. Drawing, painting, and coloring are outlets of expression. For example, if the therapist asks the child to draw his/her family, the child may draw a mom, dad, sister, and dog. The picture may provide more information about the child’s family then the child is verbally able to describe. People with autism are usually “visual learners” so incorporating art is very natural and effective with communication.

Art therapy can also improve social behaviors. Throughout an art project, there are many opportunities for turn taking, cooperation, and sharing. Therapists can encourage the child to ask for certain art supplies and waiting their turn if it is not available. If therapy is in a school setting, art can serve as a natural activity for interaction with other children. Even if therapy does not take place in school, the social skills practiced during art therapy can carry-over. Theory of mind is also difficult for children with autism. Theory of mind is the ability to understand another person’s perspective. Children may be able to understand other people’s opinions or views by looking at their artwork, which can eventually lead to theory of mind.

Behavior Management:

Repetitive behaviors, such as flapping arms or swaying back and forth, are often calming or soothing mechanisms for children with autism. Another objective of art therapy is to help children channel their non-functional soothing techniques into a socially appropriate, create outlet. If a child continuously taps a pencil to relax, they may use a dot marker and create a visual stimulating art piece. If a child is fidgeting with their hands when nervous, playing and shaping play-do may be encouraged as a soothing mechanism.

Sensory Processing:

Children with autism are often characterized as sensory avoiders because they reject certain sensory input. They may have difficulty tolerating specific textures, smells, and taste. Art therapy can help increase a child’s tolerance level through fun, creative means. If a child is participating in an enjoyable activity, they may not notice an unpleasant stimulus. For instance, a child may have a low tolerance to the texture and smell of shaving cream. If shaving cream is used in a fun, playful setting, the child may not notice the strong aversion to. Like this 3D ice-cream picture with glue and shaving cream! Even if the child is affected by the sensory stimulus a little, they are taught ways to channel the self-stimulating behavior into a more creative activity.

Lumiere Children’s therapy advocates for play-based therapy in natural settings. Incorporating art into therapy creates a playful, entertaining, and stimulating therapy session! Children can improve immensely in goals with the use of art therapy.



The value of art therapy for those on the autism spectrum. (2015, December 20). Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://the-art-of-autism.com/the-value-of-art-therapy-for-those-on-the-autism-spectrum/

“How Does “Art Therapy” Help People with Autism?” Verywell. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

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