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Use of Art Therapy in the Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Author: Bryan P. White

Original Publication: 04/26/2020

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are frequently marked by a lack of social skills (e.g., difficulty engaging in eye contact or detecting nonverbal cues), and in some cases, negatively perceived social behaviors (e.g., engaging in uncompromising rituals or repetitive behaviors) (Alter-Muri, 2017). Traditional educational facilities and systems tend to be ill-equipped to offer helpful behavioral interventions for younger individuals in an educational setting because one of the requirements of traditional educational settings is rigorous adherence to rules and task completion. Since adhering to these types of structures are difficult for those with ASD, alternative behavioral interventions such as group therapy or art therapy can have positive benefits in mitigating some of the negative social behaviors exhibited as well as achieving some of the same skill-building goals of traditional educational programs (Alter-Muri, 2017).

One such alternative educational structure, art therapy, is defined as the use of art to create a treatment and educational plan to build on the academic strengths of the student. The goal of art therapy is not to improve the techniques of art-making or focus on aesthetic critique, but rather to identify and build on strengths through the process of art-making. Examples of art therapy might include allowing a student to play with toys (e.g., trains) and see which objects they prefer, and then allow the student to engage in a free-form drawing activity (e.g., making a picture book) and identify where the student is doing good and where they are struggling (ie. maybe the student draws an extremely detailed train but is unable to accurately draw a human face). Some other strategies include using different media (e.g., clay) that might also gives clues to any types of tactile hyper or hyposensitivies (another common symptom of ASD) the student might have. Overall, art therapy has the potential for improving both behavioral skills and motor skills, as well as improving emotional and oral communication (Alter-Muri, 2017).

In a 2008 (Epp, 2008) study of school-aged children (11-18), researchers found that an implementation of the SuperKids program in Ridgefield, Connecticut demonstrated several significant improvements in educational and behavioral categories of the participant students. In this study, social skills such as compromise, graciously winning or losing a game, conversation skills, eye contact, understanding nonverbal cues, and learning to identify and express oneself's feelings as well as understanding others, were all included as improvement goals of the program. A typical group therapy setting for these students involved about a 1-hour session beginning with some free-form discussions and then leading up to more unstructured activities like drawing, and group activities where the students share their work. This allows a setting where students can explore a “sharing space”, which gives the therapists an opportunity to observe students and identify where the students might be experiencing sensory overload, as well as engage in coaching behavior for the students (e.g., initiating play and brainstorming activities).

The results of this study demonstrated that a combination of group therapy and art therapy allow for improvements in behavior skills such as cooperation and assertion, as well as a decrease in problem behaviors such as internalization and hyperactivity. Some limitations of this study were that all participants were within the same socioeconomic group (middle-class and upper-middle-class), suggesting they might be more prone or apt towards benefiting from low-complexity interventions and limits the generalizability of the study. In spite of those limitations, this study still demonstrates the possibility for behavioral improvements gained from art therapy, which in turn can translate into improved health and educational outcomes, further suggesting this is an efficacious course of research for developing ASD interventions in an educational setting.

Literature Cited

Epp, K. M. (2008). Outcome-based evaluation of a social skills program using art therapy and group therapy for children on the autism spectrum. Children & Schools, 30(1), 27-36.

Alter-Muri, S. B. (2017). Art education and art therapy strategies for autism spectrum disorder students. Art Education, 70(5), 20-25.

bpwhite/use_of_art_therapy_asd.txt · Last modified: 2020/04/26 22:15 by bpwhite