A child participating in art therapy activities for autism.

Art Therapy Activities for Autism

For decades, creative art therapies have been used in psychotherapy to enhance the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of individuals across all age groups, particularly children. Through the art of creativity, therapists can help enhance a child’s imagination, improve skills, and develop their ability to communicate. This approach is particularly beneficial among children with autism.

The CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. However, early intervention can significantly improve outcomes. Art has been shown to be a highly beneficial intervention tool for children with autism, allowing these individuals to freely express their thoughts and feelings.

If you are parenting a child with autism, here’s how art therapy can assist your child, helping them build life skills while promoting healthy self-expression.

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How Does Art Therapy Help Autism?

Whether your child is interested in music, drama, visual arts, or dance, autism art therapy is an incredible way for children to communicate and express themselves non-verbally. Just some of the ways in which art therapy is useful to children on the autism spectrum include:

  • Enhanced communication through creative expression
  • Improved imagination and greater abstract thinking
  • The ability to build stronger relationships while encouraging children with autism to see other people’s perspectives
  • Greater sensory integration while improving coping skills
  • Enhanced development while building visual/spatial skills
  • Greater emotional and sensory regulation, which has a positive impact on behavior

Art is so beneficial in that it is highly subjective. It is important to remember that each child with autism is a unique individual, with unique abilities, strengths, and needs. Since the most effective interventions are those that are personalized to meet the individualized characteristics of each child, children with autism can thrive in a creative, non-restrictive environment — one that allows them to think in pictures in a free-flowing manner.

Although each child’s experience will differ, one of the most common goals associated with art therapy is to increase tolerance for unpleasant stimuli while aiming to channel self-stimulating behavior into creative play. Since art is enjoyable for children, creative projects encourage kids with autism to tolerate various stimuli that they would normally avoid (i.e. the texture of construction paper or the smell of paint).

The goal is to help the child become desensitized to similar sensations so that they become more bearable in everyday life. This will allow them to benefit at home and school, as they learn to interact with peers and family members in a more positive manner, better regulate their emotions, and develop greater self-confidence.

How to Get Started With Art Therapy Activities for Children With Autism

Art therapy can begin for a child with autism as early as age two or three. In a world that may be otherwise confusing and often overwhelming, art can provide a problem-solving solution that better suits the child’s thinking style. Whether your goal is to help your child explore and understand their feelings or decrease certain behavioral issues, here are some ideas to get started.

While it’s important to work closely with your child’s art therapist, as these professionals hold expertise in fine arts and counseling, you can actively work with your child at home, helping them expand on what they’ve learned in therapy. Of course, you’ll need to find what works best for your child. However, the following strategies can help kickstart their creative journey.

  • Ice cube drawings — Although many children begin using paints through the art of finger painting, for many children with autism, this can be an uncomfortable experience. This is why many art therapists introduce paint brushes with long handles or other objects that allow children to express themselves without having to physically touch the paint. For ice drawings, mix non-toxic acrylic paints with a small amount of water. Combine in small cups and pour this mixture into an ice cube tray. Place a popsicle stick in each section and cover with foil so that they remain upright. Place the tray in the freezer and then allow your child to paint a masterpiece.
  • Sand art — Some children find sand art very therapeutic, especially those who showcase restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. As children peel sections and introduce colors of their choosing, they can create a masterpiece at their own pace. This can also be a great activity to do together, encouraging greater social interaction. For example, you may be responsible for peeling away sections while your child chooses a color, before applying the sand, providing them an immediate reward for their effort.
    • One key study found that a 10-week sandplay program increased verbal expression, as well as social interactions and increased spontaneous play among kids with autism
  • Playdough sculptures — Playdough is a great sensory material, making it ideal for structured, sensory, and pretend play. Here is a quick and easy recipe that you can make at home. If your child is receptive, make scented play dough to create easily identifiable smells, using ingredients such as lemon juice or cinnamon.

Best Practices

A 2017 study, published in The Arts in Psychotherapy, discussed guidelines and best practices for delivering art therapy to children who have autism spectrum disorder. Some of the best practices found were:

  • Use the same routine when beginning each session — some degree of structure is important
  • Explain instructions in a consistent manner
  • Spark curiosity in order to teach new skills
  • Be aware of transitions between activities

In contrast, it was found that certain aspects of practice were not useful. Factors that may have adverse effects include:

  • Being overly directive
  • Being too lax with direction
  • Using art materials that are over-stimulating — or providing too many options
  • Forcing or being too restrictive with communication styles

As you encourage your child to continue to embark on their art therapy journey, remember, autism is not a disability — it is simply a different ability. Actively work with your child to help them thrive.

Carmen B. Pingree is dedicated to providing comprehensive treatment, education, and services like in-home therapy for children with autism. We are here to be a resource and service for all parents. If you are looking for more beneficial resources, please refer to the following:

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