Art Therapy for Autism
Autism comes in many different shapes and forms and varies by everyone that is diagnosed. It can range from mild, and functioning, to the more severe. Autism Spectrum disorder covers five different disorders: Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Development Disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome (Miller). These severities are determined by the many spectrums of autism. Individuals diagnosed have trouble developing proper communication, behavior, and social skills (“What Is Autism? | Autism Speaks”). Some even have difficulty with imagination or perseverative or repetitive behaviors (Miller). There is one thing that most children with autism have issues with and that is their hypersensitivity to the physical world around them, and most of the times when they touch, hear, or see certain things this sparks the behaviors described above (Miller). Most of the cases are diagnosed from an early age and are not curable, but there are things that can be done to help calm the environment and encourage these children to learn at their own pace with pride.
The arts allow people to express themselves in different ways through creative outlets, whether it be through words and literature, painting and drawing, or music and dance. Perhaps this is the reason why many people use different art therapies for children with special needs. There are many types of expressive art therapy. This paper will focus on art therapy, music therapy, dance and movement therapy and, therapy through drama and play and what their effects are for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Expressive art therapy helps to enhance individual development and growth and creates a less stressful atmosphere and lessen the child’s anxieties of social settings. It helps to improve self-awareness and self-esteem, strengthens relationships with caregivers and regulates behaviors and advances social skills (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”). The arts positively affect function, mood, and cognitive behavior and is evident in children with special needs, including autism (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”). Art is a way to help all the children, typically developing or not, to feel included and normal in their own skin. Teaching other children about the differences in others can be done through art as well, like drawing or painting a picture, singing a song, dancing, or even acting or playing out a story. Feeling comfortable is the first step to being motivated to learn new skills and sharing their personalities with others.
Providing expressive art therapy is a crucial intervention program to incorporate into the early development of a child with autism. Art therapy, according to The American Art Therapy Association, is “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through art making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship” (Valentin). Some benefits of art therapy are developing a sense of self and motor skills, increasing self-esteem, managing behavior, relieving feelings of anxiety and stress, developing intrapersonal and social skills, sensory and stimulation, and providing that expressive outlet for the children who are on a nonverbal spectrum (Valentin). According to Miranda D’ Amico, art therapy can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to assert themselves and engage in social interactions with their peers in a group setting (D’ Amico). In her study conducted to test the effects of art therapy on children diagnosed with autism, D’ Amico found that when the children were given the opportunities to engage in a group setting to solve their social difficulties using art therapy, the children would experience more positive social interactions(D’ Amico). It enhanced their abilities to assert themselves and engage in more social interactions with peers and reduced bad behaviors (D’ Amico). Art therapy has been shown to help people express feelings that they may not have otherwise known how to (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”).
There are different ways to incorporate art therapy into the daily lessons of a child with autism spectrum disorder. Using certain sensory materials, such as markers or crayons, feathers and pom-poms, playdoh, sand, or even painting with shaving cream (“Art Therapy – Autism Canada”). Using these materials can help awaken a child’s imagination and creativity to help him discover his senses and how to use them to communicate through art with others (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”). Even using drawings or paintings as a release of negative feelings can help a child get through the process of healing and develop at a normal pace and strengthen those relationships needed to trust and learn.
Music therapy is the most researched form of art therapy among children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (UK). Music therapy can be used to address behavioral, social, psychological, communicative, physical, sensory-motor, and cognitive functioning (“Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”). In fact, research results have showed improvements in communication skills, cognitive development, behaviors, social and interaction skills, and emotional regulation (“Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”). It is believed that music therapy can help individuals with the ability to respond to music and sound leading to positive changes in behavior and emotional well being (UK). Research shows that children with ASD respond positively to music therapy by their heightened interest and response to the assortment of music (“Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”).
The American Music Therapy Association lists these as topics of public research, evidence-based practice, and clinical observations for using music therapy with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder:
“Music holds universal appeal…Music captures and helps maintain attention. It is highly motivating and may be used as a natural “reinforcer” for desired responses. Music therapy can stimulate individuals to reduce negative and/or self-stimulatory responses and increase participation in more appropriate and socially acceptable ways. Music therapy can enable those without verbal language to communicate, participate and express themselves non-verbally. Very often music therapy also assists in the development of verbal communication, speech, and language skills. The interpersonal timing and reciprocity in shared play, turn-taking, listening, and responding to another person are augmented in music therapy with children and adults with autism to accommodate and address their styles of communication. Music therapy helps individuals with ASD identify and appropriately express their emotions. Because music is processed in both hemispheres in the brain, it can stimulate cognitive functioning and may be used for remediation of some speech/language skills. Recent research notes that music may engage brain regions that overlap the human mirror neuron system. Music provides concrete, multi-sensory stimulation (auditory, visual, proprioceptive, vestibular, and tactile). The rhythmic component of music is very organizing for the sensory systems of individuals diagnosed with autism. As a result, auditory processing and other sensory-motor, perceptual/motor, gross and fine motor skills can be enhanced through music therapy. Musical elements and structures provide a sense of security and familiarity in the music therapy setting, encouraging individuals with ASD to attempt new tasks in a predictable but malleable framework. Music therapy focuses on strengths. Which in turn may be utilized to address individual’s areas of need. Many people with ASD have innate musical talents; thus, music therapy provides an opportunity for successful experiences.”
Dr. Katherine Stavropoulos also noted that there were increased connections between brain areas that are responsible for auditory processing and subcortical motor areas and, for children, there were decreased connections between auditory and visual processing areas. This showed that there were improvements in response intervention and social communication once the child was introduced to music therapy (Stavropoulos). Music therapy seems to play a role in helping the over-stimulated senses in children with autism by balancing the senses out within the brain, making it easier for the children to concentrate and authentically communicate with others.
Dance and Movement therapy has also shown incredible results when used for children with ASD. While a child may benefit through the shared goals of a dance class or exercise class, these are not the goals that are worked towards during therapy (Devereaux). The outcome is different with each child, making therapy useful for independent developmental purposes, but it can also be used among small groups of similar developmental stages and social engagement. Dance therapy is unique in that it is used to channel communication patterns into “dances of relationship” (Devereaux). Movement seems to be the most “natural” way of communicating since most people communicate non-verbally regardless if they are diagnosed ASD or not. Dr. Devereaux describes a patient that she worked with as non-verbal and easily agitated, and sometimes aggressive, when her senses were over stimulated. Devereaux used small group techniques through movement to slowly ease the child into welcoming, or even rejecting, the invitation to communicate with her. She mentioned that even rejection was a form of social communication, even through movement. Eventually, the child’s rejection turned into a welcoming wave, which progressed to a “high-five”, and finally a verbal “hi” (Devereaux). Once the child was comfortable in her “relationship” with Devereaux, she was able to effectively communicate. Meeting the child in her language first and connecting on her level through movement has shown to be a wonderful method of therapy for those who are considered non-verbal on the autism spectrum.
In a video posted by Dee DiGioia, a certified movement therapist in California, she held a small group therapy session for 15 minutes every morning for three students with autism in and elementary school. At first, they were said to have great difficulty focusing on the movements and would get frustrated, but as time went on, they enjoyed learning new ways to express themselves and would do so with great effort (DiGioia). DiGioia states:
“Research is affirming that combining movement and music is one of the most effective ways of stimulating the brain to increase overall cognitive processing by actually bridging the left and right hemispheres of the brain and jump-starting impaired informational pathways which otherwise would not make connections. Music and movement therapy is a “whole brain” cognitive re-mapping approach that significantly improves behavioral, social, emotional speech, language, and academic skills in children. The strategies literally awaken the brain by combining patterning, visual movement calculation, auditory processing, rhythm and sequencing, regulating their bodies and impulses which engages the whole brain. As these abilities are strengthened, new neural pathways open up, and transfer to other challenging areas of life, opening up a whole new world!”
Social communication skills can be taught through various drama lessons like improvisation and scene acting. This is beneficial for children who are verbally capable of communicating, but have trouble is social settings. Some children are said to repeat full dialogue of movies or television shows that they may have seen only one time. This can be put into a form of therapy to help children with ASD learn how to cope better in social settings among their peers (Rudy, Drama). Even though there are not an abundance of dramatic arts therapists available, most drama teachers are experienced with ways to modify their classes to better support a student with autism (Rudy, Drama).
Blythe Corbett, a professor at Vanderbilt University, conducted a study on children with autism who completed a dram therapy program at their schools and compared them to children on the spectrum who did not (McKenna). Results, from brain-imaging technology of children who completed the program, showed brain frequency levels more like those without ASD (McKenna). Researchers from another university found that children recognized more facial expressions and improved their ability to play effectively (McKenna). Children with autism being thrown into these social situations and being forced to face other students gives them an opportunity to learn how to respond and effectively communicate in a fun way. The difference with dramatic arts therapy and other forms of art therapy is that it offers actual goals in line with actual curriculum of typically developing peers. Children on the spectrum can learn and work on social communication without losing out on skills and techniques that other forms of therapy remove from the “curriculum” to better help the child (Rudy, Drama).
All children learn through play. While typically developing children play in different ways to help build their physical and social abilities, children with autism may have a repetitive way of playing with no goal in mind (Rudy, Play). Play therapy for children with autism is child-centered in a way that deals with that child’s interests or obsessions (Rudy, Play). Play therapy can be just as simple as a game with structured rules to challenge the mind of the child (“How Is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?”). This type of therapy helps the child grasp concepts of taking turns, strategizing, guessing what other’s actions or intentions will be, and communicating needs and wants (“How Is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?”). With play therapy, there is no need for professionals to take place of an instructor. Play can be carried out by their teacher, parents, caregivers, and even peers. That is what makes play therapy so rewarding, it helps give the child a sense of normalcy and inclusion with peers.
There are a few different approaches of play therapy: Directive Play, Non-Directive play, and Floor time (“How Is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?”.) Directive play is guided by a teacher or caregiver and the child may be given suggestions for what to do next to move the session along. Non-Directive play is an open play session where the child plays on his own without any intervention from a teacher or caregiver. Floor time exercises usually include the teacher, the child, and the parents. There are six goals that a teacher or therapist may look for during floor time sessions: the child shows that they understand the mechanics of the toy or game, the child actively engages the teacher and parents, two-way communication is achieved, the child becomes aware of their own wants and needs during game play, the child makes gestures to communicate, and the child calms themselves if they become upset (“How Is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?”.) Play therapy could greatly contribute to the healthy development of social and communication skills in children with autism.
Art therapy seems to have the most impact on the brain’s neural connections (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”). The senses have to operate differently for any art therapy being used, and this causes the developmental skills of recognizing differences between abstract and reality, understanding patterns, making observations about the world, and forming mental representations of real and imagination (“Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”). Art is a very individual process where each child needs to explore their own ideas of creativity and imagination. Offering the many different versions of art therapy to these children can have a greater impact on their development and make them feel as normal as possible among their peers. Therapy, in any form, can also help build relationships and stronger bonds between the teacher and the student, the teacher and the parents, and the child and their parents. Art gives these children a safe and fun way to express themselves even when frustrated or upset. The best part of using art therapy is that the child needs no knowledge of any kind of art before getting involved with it. William Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” With art therapy, this is possible for all people, especially those with special needs.
- Miller, Gray. “Art Therapy for Autism”.
, 2019, https://autism.lovetoknow.com/Autism_Through_Art.
- “What Is Autism? | Autism Speaks”. Autism Speaks, 2019,
https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism. Accessed 13 July 2019
- “Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children | Georgetown Behavioral”. Georgetownbehavioral.Com, 2016, https://www.georgetownbehavioral.com/expressive-art-therapy-for-children.
- Valentin, Krystal. “Benefits of Art Therapy | American Autism Association”. American Autism Association, 2016, https://www.myautism.org/benefits-art-therapy/. Accessed 13 July 2019.
- D’Amico, Miranda, and Corinne Lalonde. “The Effectiveness of Art Therapy for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, vol. 34, no. 4, Oct. 2017, pp. 176–182. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/07421656.2017.1384678
- “Art Therapy – Autism Canada”. Autismcanada.Org, 2016,
- UK, Research. “Research Autism | Interventions | Creative and Expressive Therapies – Research Autism”.
- “Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”. Musictherapy.Org, 2015,
- Works Cited (continued)
- Stavropoulos, Katherine. “How Music Therapy Affects the Brain In Autism”.
- Devereaux, Christina. “Dance/Movement Therapy And Autism”.
- DiGioia, Dee.
Wake Up the Brain Autism Movement Therapy
- Rudy, Lisa. “How Drama Therapy Can Help People with Autism”.
- McKenna, Laura. “Drama Classes May Boost Social Skills in Kids With Autism”.
, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/06/boosting-social-skills-in-autistic-kids-with-drama/485027/.
- Rudy, Lisa. “How Can Play Therapy Benefit Your Child with Autism?”. Verywell Health, 2019,
- “How Is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?”. Appliedbehavioranalysisedu.Org, 2019, https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/how-is-play-therapy-used-to-treat-autism/.