Why Use Art Therapy to Treat Autism?

One of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders is difficulty with verbal and social communication. In some cases, people with autism are literally non-verbal: unable to use speech to communicate at all. In other cases, people with autism have a hard time processing language and turning it into smooth, easy conversation. People with autism may also have a tough time reading faces and body language. As a result, they may have difficulty with telling a joke from a statement, or sarcasm from sincerity.
Meanwhile, many people with autism have an extraordinary ability to think visually - "in pictures." Many can turn that ability to good use in processing memories, recording images and visual information, and expressing ideas through drawing or other artistic media. Art is a form of expression that requires little or no verbal interaction which can open doors to communication.

All too often, it's assumed that a non-verbal person or a person with limited verbal capabilities is incompetent in other areas. As a result, people on the autism spectrum may not be exposed to opportunities to use artistic media -- or the opportunities may be too challenging in other ways (in large class settings, for example). Art therapy offers an opportunity for therapists to work one-on-one with individuals on the autism spectrum to build a wide range of skills in a manner which may be more comfortable (and thus more effective) than spoken language.
The research is somewhat sketchy regarding the impact of art therapy on people with autism -- the literature consists mainly of case studies and papers describing the observed impact of art therapy programs. Some of the papers written and presented on the subject, however, suggest that art therapy can do a great deal. In some cases it has opened up a whole world of opportunity to an individual with autism who has significant artistic talent. In other cases it has created a unique opportunity for personal bonding. Other possible outcomes include -

  • Improved ability to imagine and think symbolically
  • Improved ability to recognize and respond to facial expressions
  • Improved ability to manage sensory issues (problems with stickiness, etc.)
  • Improved fine motor skills