Five Things I Learned About Autism from My Art Therapist


By Janeen Herskovitz, MA, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor
August 28th, 2013

An art therapist named Kelly came into my life unexpectedly when she called my office one day. In a serendipitous chain of events, she expressed interest in networking with other mental health professionals in the field of autism. I immediately hired her to work with my own teenage son, who is on the autism spectrum. I figured this would give me an opportunity to see her work firsthand and decide if she was a therapist I would recommend.

She has worked with my son for the past year, and not only did I recommend her to every ASD mommy I know, I hired her to work in my private practice—partly so no one else would snatch her up, but mostly because of what I learned art therapy could do for kids with ASD.

Art Therapy Is Very Different from ‘Doing Arts and Crafts’
Kelly once told me the story of applying for a job at a school for autism and being told, “No, thanks, we already have an art teacher.” This was disheartening; most people don’t know that art therapy is NOT the same as art education. The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as a “mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.” And as I’ve learned over the past year, it’s an especially effective method for people on the autism spectrum.

Art Is a Communication Tool
Verbal communication is a challenge for a majority of kids on the spectrum. However, just because a child can’t speak doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have anything to say. Through art, and with the help of Kelly’s interpretation and attention to detail, I have witnessed my son express anger, joy, and even loneliness. There have been eye-opening moments when he has opened up to his therapist without using words, because he knew it was a safe place where he is accepted just as he is.

Art Is a Self-Regulation Tool
All kids need to be taught what to do with big, scary emotions, but kids on the spectrum often have the added challenge of sensory integration difficulties. This means that sounds could be experienced louder, sense of touch can under- or over-interpret, and ability to feel their body in space can be altered. Through art, instead of biting his hand when he gets upset, my son can now squeeze a ball of clay. When he feels strange sensations on his skin, he can play with water or sand to help his body adjust. And when the light in the room becomes assaulting, his therapist turns out the lights and they have “glow time” with a special board that lights up, with art created on top of it.

Process Is More Important Than Product
In my experience treating ASD parents, I have seen a great deal of emphasis placed on the end result; our days seem to be filled with goals, objectives, data, behavior plans, IEPs, and medication logs. All of these things have their place, but it’s important to balance them with the awareness of the actual process: the moments along the way to the goal that are filled with the most poignant and revelatory times with our children, when they are simply being loved and appreciated for who they are and what they CAN do. As an ASD mom, I know too well the longing for a picture I can hang on the fridge. But my art therapist doesn’t place the value on a pretty picture or a completed sculpture. Rather, she stays with my son through the process of the art making, with a more important goal in mind: allowing him the freedom to be himself.

Art Provides an Opportunity to Truly Be with Our Kids
Our children appreciate it when we just share the same space with them. Every day, most of the day, kids on the spectrum are told what to do, how to do it, and in what way. They have picture schedules, charts, and reminders to provide the almighty, great-and-powerful “structure.” Structure is often necessary and appreciated by kids, but art provides an opportunity for some “unstructured structure.” My son loves being able to choose big paper or little paper, crayons or paints, brush or fingers. He appreciates being asked, “What would YOU like to do with these materials?” All the while, his therapist is there to guide, encourage, and simply be “present” with him.

How do I know that my son, who can barely chain enough words together to make a coherent sentence, appreciates these things? Because while he’s creating in a therapy session and his therapist says, “It looks like you have a lot to say today, and I just want you to know I’m listening,” he puts down his crayon, looks into her eyes, and gently strokes her cheek as the corners of his mouth turn up into a knowing smile. After all, if we want our children communicate with more than just words, we need to be able to listen with more than just our ears.