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Art Therapy as a Treatment Modality for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC

Art therapy has the unique ability to target core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by channeling emotional and physical energy into a healthy form of creative self-expression and visual communication. Huma Durrani, an art therapist based in Singapore who works with children and teens with autism, wrote an article “A Case for Art Therapy as a Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder” and highlighted the target areas that art therapy can support with children on teens with ASD. The target areas that Durrani noted as significant in improving symptoms associated with ASD with art therapy interventions included sensory regulation, psychomotor regulation, and communication and expression within the context of attachment.

With regard to sensory regulation, it is important to recognize that sensory integration dysfunction (SID) impacts the way an individual may respond to external stimuli- and these stimuli are perceived through the individuals senses, including smell, taste, vision, hearing, kinesthetic (body in motion), vestibular (balance in movement) or proprioception (body movement and positioning), according to Durrani’s extensive research. Individuals with ASD might experience hypoarousal or hyperarousal when experiencing certain stimuli, which means that they may shut down and close off their bodies to their environment or may become extremely irritable, impulsive and engage in a variety of defense-like behaviors.

So how does art therapy improve sensory regulation? Due to the nature of art materials, there are varieties of textures, colors, material qualities, and smells that can impact one’s sensory feedback and tactile input. For some, using larger canvases and paper sizes with expressive brush strokes and lines involving the whole body may be helpful in stimulating different areas of the brain, according to Durrani. The use of clay was also highlighted in Durrani’s article as having grounding qualities that allowed for a regulated nervous system and increased ability to learn, communicate and build relationships with others.

Psychomotor regulation for individuals diagnosed with ASD may be a sign of impairment in cognitive functioning and body movement abilities. The use of art materials provides a natural environment for practicing and creatively adapting to different movement and motor challenges. In art there are different options and non-traditional ways of creating are embraced rather than shamed or judged. If one is struggling to hold a certain sized pencil or paint brush, there are different options for sizes and shapes available as well as options to use other materials, such as sponges, easy grip crayons, stencils, stamps and and even your hands. There are also benefits of being able to create art in different positions, such as on a table, on the floor, or at an easel, and using different parts of your body in different axes of movement (across the body, up and down, diagonally). Placing items, such as pom-poms, beads and scrap paper for collages can also support fine motor skill development and practice.

The relationship and attachment building is the additional benefit that art therapy provides to individuals participating in these services, as the art therapist is able to work one on one with the individual in a controlled, consistent and safe environment. The art therapist is trained to become attuned to the needs of the individual, by offering certain materials that may stimulate or regulate sensory processing and provide moments of containment and calm for sensory overload. Being able to work closely with a child or teen on the ASD also provides ample opportunities to practice and encourage communication through social skill building as well as developing emotional identification and expression skills.

Art therapy continues to be widely researched and used to work with a variety of populations and individuals who can benefit from its unique ability to promote self-expression, communication, relationship building, motor skills, creativity, self-confidence, self-compassion and emotional intelligence. If you believe that your child or teen could benefit from art therapy sessions, or if you would like to learn more about what the Holistic Health Counseling Center has to offer with regard to these services, please give us a call at 908-857-4422.

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Article cited in this blog:

Durrani, Huma (2019). A Case for Art Therapy as a Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, Art Therapy, 36:2, 103-106.


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