How Art Therapy Can Help Children with Autism and Untreated Trauma

Art therapy has been used for years as way to connect with individuals who think more visually or abstractly. The physical expression of art allows adults and children alike to work through complex emotions or traumas, non-verbally. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy “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.”

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Such a versatile therapy be utilized in many different ways, remaining customizable to each individual’s needs. Devika Jasra was almost 14 years old when she saw her father collapse on the floor, resulting in his hospitalization. Although her father survived the heart attack, Devika suffered from insomnia, nightmares and panic attacks ever since. That is, until she started art therapy.

“The classes have helped her open up, and she is slowly getting back to a more secure mental state,” mother Snehali said. Devika has been attending weekly drawing and painting sessions for four months now and has seen an immense improvement in her mental health. Nikita D’Souza, a Mumbai-based child psychologist, explained how working with colors and drawings while discussing a traumatic experience helps reduce feelings of anxiety, anger, and fear in children. Nikita, who primarily works with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder, said, “Not only does it allow students to express emotions, it provides behavioural support and stress management.”

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While a child might work through some difficult emotions while drawing, it is essential to have a trained eye watching them as they paint. Nikita continues to explain how the pattern of strokes, the pressure applied while drawing, the colors selected, can all provide insight into how that child is feeling. “It is not very simple though to understand a child through their works,” she explained. “The assessment has to be done across multiple art sessions with the child.”

Art therapy can also look different as the child grows up. Deepti Vadlamudi, special educator in Visakhapatnam, describes how children over the age of seven will benefit more from exploring “wet-on-wet” painting, followed by veil painting, which is considered to be more meditative. “In this [wet-on-wet] method, children use water colour that spreads easily on wet paper and blends with other colours,” she explained. “Only primary colours (red, blue and yellow) are used as they blend with each other to create many shades of green, orange, brown, grey and purple. This provides children with a canvas of rich imagination. The colours, when they flow freely, also evoke many emotions and feelings. We usually see children favour a specific colour that calms them or excites their individual temperament.”

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While an art therapist will be essential in digging deeper into trauma and more closed-off emotions, art therapy can be conducted at home as a way for children on spectrum, or those who suffer from mental health concerns, to relax and enter a more calming state. Although younger children may experience art for the first time through finger painting, this can be an uncomfortable sensation for a child with autism. Instead, try using paint brushes with long handles, or starting with crayons, pencils or markers. For children that enjoy the physical stimulation, sand art or playdough sculptures can be a great way for them to use their hands without making a mess.

Jayashree Rao, an art therapist based in Mumbai, explains how color plays and immense role in art therapy. “Colours work at the ‘feeling’ realm,” he explained. “They speak to humans directly and differently, each with its own quality, separate from forms.” Jayashree primarily utilizes the wet-on-wet watercolor method in his therapy sessions, noting that the flow of the artwork seems to relax children. “Art has and will always continue to have healing powers, provided we are not driven by the goal of perfect artwork.”

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