Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Art Psychotherapy Practice
Art psychotherapy can be very beneficial for individuals diagnosed with autism , for those who have an impaired communication ability, finding verbal self-expression and language especially difficult. Art offers a way for people who have trouble communicating with words to express themselves directly, without words. People with autism are often highly visual thinkers, and many think in pictures. Expressing feelings and ideas through images can be very natural for such individuals bringing about a welcome relief from the daily struggle to use words effectively.
Autistic people also tend to struggle with social issues, such as interpreting the tone of a voice and a facial expression, and may feel uncomfortable relating to others. One-on-one interactions, such as conversations, are often extremely intimidating and stressful. Working alongside an art psychotherapist can be much more comfortable without the initial need for direct, face-to-face interaction. This is because the art is the focal point, an opportunity to express emotions and communicate in a visual language. Assessments take place during the session by the art psychotherapist by witnessing the art making process and images made.
Art therapy is ideally suited for addressing and identifying Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a pervasive problem in autism which may be contributing to the onset of difficult emotional and behavioural issues, unrecognised in many cases. Sensations brought about from light, sound, smell and touch may be irritating, or overwhelming to people with autism. When overstimulated, people with autism may become agitated, avoidant or simply shut down and become expressionless in order to escape the unpleasant stimulus.
One of the most common goals in art therapy is to increase tolerance for unpleasant stimuli, while channelling self-stimulating behaviour into more creative activity. Because art is naturally enjoyable they are more likely to tolerate textures and smells they might otherwise avoid when they are part of an enjoyable art process. In art psychotherapy, the aim is to channel non-functional or inappropriate stimming into socially acceptable, creative outlets. Personal emotional issues can be expressed and worked through, empowering the individual to communicate through self-expression, resolve conflicts, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
Group art therapy can also be a wonderful facilitator in forming connections with peers. Cooperation, turn-taking, respecting differences and other social skills can all be practiced in an enjoyable, natural setting. People with autism may also struggle to comprehend other people’s viewpoints. By looking at a peer’s art work can be a visible way to see another person’s perspective. Creating together in a group nurtures collaboration, co-operation and brings about a sense of acceptance. Group therapy improves interpersonal skills, helps manage problematic behaviours, and achieve personal insight and goals whilst enjoying the pleasures of art making.
Assessment and Diagnosis
Prior to an assessment, relevant family history and files are given to the art therapist, along with a background of presenting issues.
Clients with communication deficits have an opportunity to communicate through an image. This approach may be used with non-verbal clients also.
Art therapists set standards and protocols for assessment that address results valued by the professional context where they work in relation to the nature of the particular programmes and approaches to practice.
An art based approach to an assessment focuses on the art making process. The art psychotherapist observes what people do in a session or sessions, as well as engaging with the images they make. The goal is to fully appreciate an individuals communication through creative expression to best determine their aspirations, needs and goals.
A diagnosis strives to determine what is occurring in the session, difficulties that emerge, things that the person can or can’t do and how to best offer help and recommendations for best practice. A diagnosis may also include naming a pathological condition. A referral to another practitioner may result.
The findings are then shared with the relevant team and are confidential.