How to Help an Autistic Child Build Artistic Skills

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When a child has an autism diagnosis, the focus is usually on helping them manage daily life as typically as possible. Behavioral and developmental therapies focus on speech, social skills, and self-regulation, while occupational and physical therapies help build skills like handwriting, throwing, and kicking.

From the parents’ point of view, just getting through a normal day can be challenging. The idea of introducing artistic creativity into the mix can seem unnecessary or even overwhelming.

However, research shows that music, dance, and visual art can and do improve the lives of people on the spectrum. Not only do arts therapies improve social skills and engagement, but active participation in community arts programs can enhance inclusion, self-confidence, and communication.

Just as importantly, many autistic children have strong skills in artistic expression and enjoy it in its many forms.

Child drawing with crayons

Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Benefits of the Arts for an Autistic Child

People with autism are very different from one another. Some are not interested in the arts; others have little or no interest in technology. But for those children and teens who are intrigued by creative self-expression, music and visual art have a wide range of benefits that are hard to find anywhere else.

Depending on the individual, just a few of those benefits include:

  • Experience with self-expression that does not require verbal strengths: All people with autism have difficulty with verbal self-expression; many are non-verbal or nearly non-verbal. The arts provide a tool for self-expression that is accessible for someone without the means to discuss their worldview.
  • Opportunities for social growth: Artistic activities are often communal—think of band, theater, dance groups, and art classes—and require a degree of interaction and engagement that typical classroom experiences don’t. In fact, some social skills therapists build their programs around arts activities for that very reason.
  • Opportunities to build on strengths: From the time they are diagnosed, children with autism are judged for what they can’t do and taught to “catch up” with others. In the arts, however, children with autism often have the edge. Many are quite talented in drawing, music, and even drama.
  • Opportunities for true inclusion: It’s difficult to fully include a child with autism in social activities or sports programs—their differences in those settings become real liabilities. In the arts, however, children with autism can often be fully included as part of a group of peers.
  • Lifelong interests to enjoy and share: Children with autism are constantly learning new, complex skills, only to outgrow the need for them as they move through childhood and into adulthood. Social skills for kindergarteners are irrelevant to third graders, and “sharing” is uncool by the time a child is 11. Arts interests and skills, however, are relevant throughout the lifespan.

Challenges

While children with Level 1 (high functioning) autism may (or may not) be able to access arts education along with typical peers, children with more severe forms of autism may find it impossible. That’s because school-based arts education relies on children having a range of skills and abilities that are not available to most children with autism.

For example:

  • Strong fine motor skills: Many children and adults on the autism spectrum have difficulty with fine motor skills. This compromises their ability to draw, use scissors, or play an instrument. While most children with autism can learn these skills over time, they won’t learn at the same speed as their typical peers.
  • Strong verbal language processing: Most children, when told “turn to page 3,” will process and act on the command in seconds. Children with autism, however, often need support to focus on, process, and then act on verbal commands. They may need one-to-one support in an arts setting, which may be difficult to provide as children become more proficient in technical skills such as music or dance.
  • Ability to meet instructors’ expectations: Private music and art instructors often have high expectations for their students. In addition, they may have limited knowledge of pedagogical techniques. As a result, they may become frustrated with the slow pace at which children with autism are likely to learn (for example) to read music.
  • Ability to engage with group learning: Including a child with autism in a theatrical or dance performance can be very challenging, especially when there is an expectation of proficiency. If the child falls behind or is frustrated, the entire group may be disrupted.
  • Strong gross motor skills: Children with autism often have compromised gross motor skills. This makes it hard to catch or kick a ball, and it also makes it difficult to keep up with activities such as dance or certain types of instrumental music.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to children with autism becoming involved with the arts is the assumption that the arts are less important to their development than the ability to participate in typical academic classes, sports, or activities of daily living. “If they can’t make it through Walmart,” the thinking goes, “how will they ever learn to play the piano?”

Models for Involvement in the Arts

There are four possible models for involving an autistic child in the arts: inclusive arts programs, segregated (“special needs”) arts programs, therapeutic arts programs, and private art instruction. Each of these has its pros and cons, both for the child and for the typical children and/or adults involved.

Inclusive Arts Programs

In theory, school-based arts instruction should include autistic children with their typical peers in a universally accessible arts program. In other words, the teacher should be able to provide a range of modifications that make it possible for every child to participate at their level.

This is relatively easy (in some cases) when the focus is on the visual arts, because each child works at their own pace on their own project. In addition, many autistic children have real strengths in visual art. However, it becomes trickier when children must work together as a team in a band concert, theatrical presentation, or dance event.

Inclusion can be an ideal option if support is available to help the autistic child with executive planning, avoid sensory overload, and express themselves through art.

Not only does the autistic child become a functional member of the group, learning the same skills of self-expression as the rest of the class, but their classmates get the opportunity to work with someone with different skills and strengths. Without support, however, inclusion can be difficult or even impossible.

Special Needs Arts Programs

It is always easier to work with autistic children in a “special needs” setting where they are segregated from their peers. Unusual behaviors, developmental delays, and fine motor issues become irrelevant because the entire group shares most of these challenges.

In addition, special needs settings are set up to include support staff who can work one-to-one with a child who needs extra help for any reason. There are several downsides, however, to special needs art programs.

It is rare for a special needs art program to teach students the same skills as their typical peers. As a result, the autistic child doesn’t have the opportunity to build skills they would need to progress in the arts—such as brush skills, harmonic singing, appropriate behavior backstage or during a concert, etc.

Another major problem with special needs arts programs is the reality that most lower expectations to a significant degree. In many cases, children on the spectrum are not encouraged to improve or build on their abilities. Projects are often pre-prepared, making it difficult for children to express their own artistic ideas.

Therapeutic Arts Programs

Most research on autism and the arts relates to arts therapies, including a wide range of options such as art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy, and more.

Art therapy for autistic children focuses not on the art itself but on the use of artistic techniques to build social, communication, and emotional skills. Art therapy is usually provided one-to-one and customized to the specific needs of the child.

Research findings are very positive for art therapy. Most children do well, enjoy the experience, and build important skills. Art therapy, however, is distinct from arts instruction.

A child who spends a year in music therapy, for example, may build social skills without increasing musical skills. On the positive side, art therapy is an effective tool for addressing the core symptoms of autism. It is, however, not a form of arts instruction.

Private Art Instruction

Private art instruction is an ideal option for those who can afford it (or who can provide it for their children). Not only is it possible, in a one-to-one setting, to help a child build skills in their own way at their own pace, but it’s also possible to focus on the child’s specific interests, abilities, and challenges.

Children with autism learn differently from their typical peers. An instructor with a “toolkit” of teaching options can often find just the right tool to unlock an autistic child’s special abilities.

Of course, the major downside of private art instruction is cost. Piano lessons can cost up to $60 per hour, and a piano teacher capable of working with an autistic child might charge even more.

On the other hand, most parents have the skills to work with their child on drawing, painting, and singing, if they have the time and temperament to go that route.

Tips for Helping Your Child Explore the Arts

Your choice of teaching method will depend largely on your child’s abilities, interests, and behaviors—and on your own budget, availability, and skills. There are, however, ways to ensure that your child gets the most out of any art experience.

  • Never assume incompetence. Your child’s verbal abilities or behaviors bear no relationship to their artistic potential. Nonverbal people with autism have gone on to become internationally renowned visual artists, singers, and musicians.
  • Push for creative expression vs. “coloring” or recreating a model. While it may be easier for instructors to distribute coloring sheets and crayons or have everyone complete identical projects, there is no reason why your child can’t be encouraged to choose their own subject, colors, and medium. Additionally, social/communications goals can be met without standardizing artistic expression.
  • Support inclusion whenever possible. While there are times when inclusion is not an option, in most cases it can be achieved with the right support.
  • Give your child a head start. If your autistic child indicates an interest in music, don’t wait until grade four to give them music lessons. Get them started early so that they are ready to join their typical peers when the time comes. The same applies to holding a crayon, cutting with scissors, and other skills you know they’ll need to participate in the arts.
  • Take advantage of special programs at art museums, music venues, and theaters. If a special needs arts program is offered, take your child. Even if the experience isn’t ideal the first time, your child will start to learn what it means to sit in an audience, participate in a workshop, or otherwise engage in community arts.
  • Have artistic materials at home. Whether it’s crayons and paper, an electric keyboard, or a full-blown “center” for arts exploration, have materials available for your child to explore. Work together on projects that you both enjoy so that your child can have the experience of art as a positive way to share time.
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