How Art Therapy Helps People With Autism

A Risk-Free Way to Help Your Child Connect With Emotions

According to the American Art Therapy Association, "Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art-making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, and self-awareness, and achieve insight."

There is no single way to provide art therapy; as a result, it can look very different when practiced by and with different individuals. It can be free-flowing or structured, open-ended or goal-oriented. For children and adults with autism, it can be a wonderful way to open doors to self-expression and engagement.

Little girl painting a picture
Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images

Why Use Art Therapy to Treat Autism?

One of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders is a difficulty with verbal and social communication. In some cases, people with autism are literally nonverbal and 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 that can open doors to communication.

All too often, it's assumed that a nonverbal 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.

How Art Therapy Is Different From Art Classes

Art therapy is a tool for helping clients to access their emotions. By contrast, art classes are intended to provide students with instruction on how to achieve specific artistic effects or goals. While art classes may be appropriate for individuals with autism, they are not a substitute for art therapy.

What Art Therapists Do for People With Autism

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

How to Find and Select an Art Therapist

Qualified art therapists hold a masters degree and are certified by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Not all qualified art therapists, however, have specific experience working with people on the autism spectrum. Many specialize in working, for example, with trauma victims, individuals with mental illness, etc. To find an art therapist, start with the Art Therapy Credentials Board's online therapist locator.

When you've located a local therapist, call to find out what experience that individual has had with autism spectrum disorders. While extensive experience may not be critical, it is very important that the therapist you choose understands the specific issues, challenges, and strengths associated with autism. It's important to note that art therapy is not just for young children, or even for children in general. Its usefulness has been established for people of all ages, including adults.

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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.