Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that promoting emotional learning and social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be beneficial. These skills can be nurtured and encouraged in a fun, creative way through the use of art therapy interventions. One way to achieve this is through the use of puppets and puppet making in a group setting or individually with an art therapist. Puppets offer a versatile and fun way for children with autism to learn about their emotions and the emotions of others. They can also be used to practice social skills, such as negotiation and problem solving. In addition, puppet making can be used as an art therapy tool to help children with autism express their emotions.
According to Bani Malhotra, a researcher interested in using art as a way to promote emotional empathy, the use of puppets in a therapy session is “...a nonconfrontational tool for socioemotional and behavioral development leading toward EE [emotional empathy].” Malhotra published a journal article in which she explored the use of art therapy to promote emotional empathy while working with an adolescent with autism. Malhotra found that in working with the puppets, the individual adolescent client in session was able to brainstorm solutions to problems and challenging scenarios faced by the puppet and develop emotional understanding through the characters.
It is believed that many individuals on the autism spectrum may have difficulty reading facial expressions and understanding body language, and they may find it hard to initiate or respond to social interactions. That’s where puppets come in. Puppets can help children struggling in these skill areas to learn to read and interpret facial expressions, as observed in subtle cues, such as changes of an individual’s eyebrow slant, mouth bend or nose wrinkle. Incorporating puppets as a therapeutic intervention can also help kids learn important social skills.
Children have the ability to practice in real time ways of communicating and interacting with others, like how to take turns, how to make friends, how to initiate conversations, learn social cues and how to handle conflicts.
In a therapy session, puppets can be used in a variety of ways, including role playing, creating social stories, and identifying and expressing feelings through character play. When using the puppets for role play, one might have a child or group of children use puppets to act out different scenarios that they might encounter on a day-to-day basis. This might include a morning routine after waking up, making breakfast, setting the table, getting onto the bus, going to school, talking to friends, telling a caregiver about their day, etc. Roleplaying can also help them learn how to react in different social situations.
Social stories are another way that children can begin to understand emotional cues from others and appropriate reactions to those emotional cues in a given situation. Social stories will often include a title or clearly defined topic, an introduction stating what is happening, a body or set of details describing what is occurring (answer: who, what, where, when, why, and how) and a conclusion.
When used in play, it may be helpful to have a theme for a social story prepared and then to play out the story using the puppets as the main characters. Examples of topics for social stories might include maintaining personal space, hitting, making friends, taking turns, going to the store, and using the bathroom.
Depending on the child’s age, it may be engaging to encourage them to create and design their own puppets using socks or paper bags, allowing them more autonomy to develop the puppet’s appearance and personality. Children can also be involved in helping to write a script in which the puppets then act out the script through play interaction. Through this process, children learn how to regulate their emotions and communicate better with others.
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Bani Malhotra (2019) Art Therapy With Puppet Making to Promote Emotional Empathy for an Adolescent With Autism, Art Therapy, 36:4, 183-191, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2019.1645500