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Shannon Creedon

Children with Special Needs

Stephanie Cox Suarez

15 November 2017

Art Therapy’s Effect on Autism

Art therapy is a form of therapy that has been becoming popular in the special education

field for decades now. Art therapy is defined as “a form of expressive therapy that uses the

creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being”

( Art therapy has been

widely known to help children with autism in many different ways (CDC, 2016). Research

shows that every 1 in 68 people are affected by autism (CDC, 2016). This is a high statistic,

showing that there are many people with autism that deserve many opportunities, including

access to art therapy. People with autism have different ways that art therapy can help them.

Children with autism can have trouble with communication and art therapy is something that can

help students with their ability to communicate. The research question that will be discussed

throughout the paper is ‘what are the effects of art therapy on children with autism?’. This

question is important to discuss because children who have autism can benefit greatly from art

therapy, and if the idea does not become known, it will not reach the children who will benefit

and thrive from the therapy.

My mother has been a special education teacher and for the past three years she has

worked with a student who has severe autism. When he first came to the school, he had trouble

controlling his body and his own actions. Once they brought in an art therapist to work with him,

he started to have more control and focus. He was no longer flailing his arms and tended to be
more coordinated throughout the school day. This situation makes me wonder how art therapy

can be an important part of a child with autisms life. It also makes me wonder how the students

who need art therapy would be affected if they are not able to access it.

Autism has become a prevalent disorder throughout the world and has affect many

families in both positive and negative ways. Autism is defined by Rappin and Tuchman (2016)

as “a behaviorally distinct syndrome with many known and unknown cases. It has a wide range

of severity and is defined dimensionally, which means that is has fuzzy borders that overlap

normality at one extreme and profound intellectual impairment with other evidence of severe

brain malfunction at the other” (Rappin, I., and Tuchman, R. F., 2008, p. 1129). In simpler terms,

this definition states that autism can be severe or can fall in a range of severity. This is why it is

called the autism spectrum disorder; the spectrum shows a wide variety of people. There are

many different characteristics of autism and not all of those characteristics are found in every

person with autism. Some example of characteristics that Rabbin and Tuchman (2016) discuss

are difficulty with social skills, empathy, and the ability to see and understand people’s moods

which can lead to inappropriate interactions with other people. Other characteristics that Rabbin

and Tuchan (2016) touch on are how people with autism can have repetitive movements. These

movements can be small things such as moving their hand in circles, or the movements could be

flailing their arms back and forth quickly. People with autism also can have compromised

language, which means that they could have some spoken words, a lot of spoken words, or do

not speak at all. Communication is something that people with autism have trouble with as well,

especially when the person cannot speak (Rappin, I., and Tuchman, R. F., 2008, p. 1129). When

the person cannot speak it leads to a lot of non-verbal communication, which are things like
facial expressions, body language, and signals with their movements. Autism may have some

negative effects of the people that have it, but it also has some amazing effects as well.

Layout of the Research

Art therapy has a variety of methods that it can be used to help people who have autism.

One of the ways that art therapy can help students with autism is that it helps them with building

their social skills. The way that art therapists try and help build their social skills are using

modeling, mirroring, and sharing art materials where possible (Van Lith, 2017). Having the

students share their art supplies and materials pushes students to communicate with their peers

around them which help build their social skills. Modeling during art therapy is another way for

students to build their social skills. One student is able to show the other students what they are

doing and can model for the students what the art they are doing that day is, which will help all

the students start to communicate and socialize with each other. (Van Lith, 2017 p. 81).

Schweizer (2014) discusses how children can also gain from body language and spirited

interactions with the art materials as a way to build the students social skills and communication

skills. Students who may be nonverbal can benefit from there’s interactions through art therapy

as well. They show more nonverbal communication through their body language and their

interactions with their peers throughout the therapy session which can help build their

communication skills. Communication can also be seen through the art that the children present.

These students are able to draw or paint their emotions and feelings through their art work that

the art therapist has them doing, which can lead to social interactions and communication (Alter-

Muri. 2017, p. 24). These communication skills that art therapy provides for students with autism

are important for the development of the student’s social skills. Being able to help students with
autism who struggle with communication and social skills is one of the most important benefits

from art therapy.

Emotional concerns have caused problems that have been seen in students with autism.

Art therapy has been seen to help students who have emotional problems in different ways. One

of the ways that art therapy has helped students with emotional problems is reducing stress. The

reduction of stress in the student’s life helps the student with different emotional problems that

autism can cause. Art therapy can also reduce the frustration that students with autism may have

(Alter-Muri, 2017, p. 23). Frustration is common in students with autism due to the aloneness

that they feel because of their disorder. Aloneness causes a lot of things like frustration, stress,

and anxiety, which can all be reduced from art therapy (Alter-Muri. 2017, p. 23). Emotional

problems can also cause poor self-image, which is another thing that art therapy can help.

Schweizer (2014) states that “playful experiences contribute to imporving self-esteem and social

skills” which art therapy is something that is considered a playful experience. Other ways that

self-image has been improved by art therapy is that students who are enjoying the experience can

start to understand their own autism (Schweizer, 2014, p. 591). This means that students are able

to gain insight and understand their autism more through these art therapy experiences.

Emotional issues can be a huge part of these students lives, which can be helped through these

experiences in art therapy.

People who have autism may have sensitivity to touch, which can affect their everyday

lives. Alter-Muri (2017) said that “many students living with ASD are hyper- or hypo-sensitive

to touch” which lead to people with autism sometimes being over-stimulated. Through art

therapy, there are ways that the therapists can bring in sensory experiences that can be beneficial

to the students. Art therapy can be a good way to facilitate tactile experiences for students with
autism (Schweizer, 2014). Schweizer (2014) discussed how these experiences are a good way for

students to be introduced to new materials that will stimulate the students in a healthy way. An

example of a way to have students have healthy sensory experiences is discussed by Alter-Muri

(2017) who says that one can put clay in a zip-lock baggy so that the plastic acts like a buffer so

the student is not overwhelmed with the stimulation but is still able to participate in the activity.

Activities like this can help the student with their tactile experiences and help sooth them. (Alter-

Muri, 2017, p. 22). Students with autism struggle with tactile sensitivity, but art therapy can help

them be open to new experiences and become one with something that can over-stimulate them.

Implications of the Research

Implications are unavoidable in research, and this study does have some. This research

explored just a few ways that art therapy can positively influence someone with autism. Art

therapy can be helpful to students with autism in many different ways, but there is always going

to be someone who has autism and is affected positively in a way that hasn’t been proven yet,

which leads to holes in the research. Implications can also be that not all students are going to be

impacted positively by art therapy, and there seemed to only be positive research that came out

of all the research that was done. Art therapy can be influential and positive in the students life

but that does not count for the students who may not be ready to stimulate themselves in a way

that makes them uncomfortable. This can lead to research not taking into account that students

may not want to be involved with art therapy, even if it is seen as the best option for them. One

question that I have is; what have been the negative repercussions from studies that research art

therapy and autism? Have there been any?

Future research studies that I would suggest is looking into art therapy and the negative

repercussions that students with autism could have from it. This should be a future study because
if the negative effects of art therapy are found, then the researchers could learn from them. The

funding for art therapy may not always be there in schools, especially schools who are struggling

with money. This could be hard for students with autism to get the therapy that they may need,

which is a disappointing but true reality. Art therapy may be a material that can help students

with autism, but it also may not be readily available to them. This would be an interesting thing

to study to see how often school budgets are the reason that students are not receiving art


I learned so much from this research on art therapy that I did not know before. Learning

about the emotional problems that people with autism can have and how art therapy can affect

and help change that made me think about how influential this practice can be in a student’s life.

This research affects my personal goals in an influential way as well. I am hoping to become

either a speech pathologist or an art therapist in a school system and learning all this information

is so important for people to know. This inspires me to make sure that I am always up to date on

what new research is coming out so that all the students who I will be working with are able to

reach their full potential just like anybody else going through school and learning.
Works Cited
Alter-Muri, S. B. (2017). Art Education and Art Therapy Strategies for Autism Spectrum Disorder
Students. Art Education, 70(5), 20-25. doi:10.1080/00043125.2017.1335536
Rappin, I., & Tuchman, R. F. (2008, October). Autism: Definition, Neurobiology, Screening,
Diagnosis. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from https://ac.els-
Schweizer, C., Knorth, E. J., & Spreen, M. (2014). Art therapy with children with autism
spectrum disorders: A review of clinical case descriptions on ‘what works’. The Arts In
Psychotherapy, 41(5), 577-593. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2014.10.009
Van Lith, T., Stallings, J. W., & Harris, C. E. (2017). Discovering good practice for art therapy with
children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder: The results of a small scale survey. Arts In
Psychotherapy, 5478-84. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2017.01.002
What is Art Therapy? | What Does an Art Therapist Do? (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2017,