Jacob Edward, 10, paints a clay plate he made in his past four art therapy sessions. He dips his brush into the cup of silvery black paint he has mixed, and dabs it into the cracks of the clay.
Jacob's breathing and brush strokes start to quicken. He seems anxious. I ask him if he needs a break, and he stops to take three deep breaths. He resumes painting, at a slower pace. When he completes his work, he puts the plate aside. Next week he will put the finishing touches on it. He draws quietly for a few minutes before returning to his classroom.
Jacob has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD. He is curious, creative, and unusually friendly for a child on the spectrum. He is impulsive and easily distracted. I have worked with Jacob at school since art therapy was added to his IEP, more than eight months ago.
Jacob knows how art therapy helps him. "It keeps my brain calm," he says, "and it helps my body get calm."
Children with ADHD and learning differences often have intense emotions, poor social skills, and low self-esteem. Children naturally communicate through art and play, and art therapy gives them a useful, nonverbal approach to face these challenges.
How Art Therapy Works
Art therapy uses the processes of drawing, painting, and sculpting to improve well-being and confidence in kids. It is based on the premise that self-expression can be used to address emotional problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, and increase self-awareness. One does not have to be a da Vinci to benefit from art therapy.
Art therapists work with students in mainstream and special education classes. An art teacher educates students about techniques. An art therapist encourages art-making to reduce problems related to learning and emotional adjustment. Art therapy enables a child to explore personal problems through physical activity and sensory integration. Different parts of the brain are engaged during creative expression. Sweeping a brush across a canvas requires motor skills. Drawing a picture of a memory requires analytic and sequential operations, logic, and abstraction. Working through the sequence of steps needed to complete an art task requires attention skills and working memory. Making art generates a relaxation response and improves a child's mood. Creative activity increases brain levels of serotonin, the lack of which can lead to depression. Manipulating clay for five minutes can reduce stress hormones more than squeezing a stress ball.
A centering art activity, such as coloring a mandala (a circle design with geometric patterns), before a group activity has been shown to increase an individual's attention span and decrease impulsive behavior, promoting better decision-making and focus during tasks. As part of a comprehensive treatment program, art therapy can help students feel in control. A study that paired academic assistance with weekly art therapy sessions found that the addition of art therapy contributed positively to the social-emotional adjustment of children with learning disabilities.
Jacob's mother, Jenn Lynn, proudly shows pictures of her son's artwork, which she saves on her computer. Family members describe Jacob's autism as a "superpower," because he notices details that other people don't. He is sensitive to smells and sounds. He is energetic. Jenn notices that "the only time he is quiet and calm at home is when he is doing art."
"I know that if it's quiet, and I don't see Jacob, he is building or drawing," she says. "Just to color something simple chills him out. I always keep paper and a pen with me, so that he can use them, especially in a restaurant or the mall."
Jenn does not consider herself artistic, but she and Jacob's father support his creativity by allowing him to build and create when he wants to. He has made medieval castles and has built models of blood pressure monitors. They encourage him to talk about what he creates.
Enjoy the Process
The key for parents is not to set the bar too high or to direct their child. Some children enjoy the sensory experience of using art materials, and their "artwork" may be scribbles or amorphous lumps of clay. Other children with learning differences produce visually sophisticated pieces. Here are some guidelines that art therapists use in school:
> PROCESS, NOT PRODUCT. Focus on making the art, not the final product. The goal is not perfection, a piece that can be exhibited in school or a museum. Encourage the child to concentrate on how it feels to paint, build, draw, or sculpt. Lower the pressure to produce something similar to what his peers might produce.
> BE CURIOUS, AND DON'T JUDGE. Have a child talk about her artwork. If she doesn't volunteer, ask questions: "What's going on in your picture?" or, "What title would you give to your picture?" This allows a child to express his point of view. Keep the questions simple and give the child time to think before answering.
> TALK ABOUT ALL OF HIS FEELINGS, EVEN ANGER OR SADNESS. If a child expresses disappointment about his artwork, ask what he would have done differently, instead of automatically reassuring him that you think his painting is beautiful. This plants the idea that he can problem-solve and try again.
> KEEP IT INTERESTING--ON A SMALL SCALE. Balancing stimulation and structure will maximize the impact of art activities. Projects that inspire excitement enhance focus, but routine is also critical to managing impulsive behavior. Too many choices of art materials is overwhelming. It is a good rule of thumb to start with a handful of materials; more can be added later. For some kids, it means a choice between markers or clay. For others, it means using only two paint colors at a time.
Kent Nulty's son, Ayden, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia in the second grade. He has executive function challenges, and he needs time to organize his thoughts before speaking.
Kent has a background in graphic design, so it wasn't surprising when Ayden started playing with paint at nine months old. When Ayden was 18 months old, and his brother Ashton was nine months, Kent had them outside painting on boxes in the driveway.
Now in the fourth grade, Ayden is interested in sculpture, and dreams of being an architect. "When Ayden is creating art, his focus is sharp," says Kent. "I see a difference in his self-esteem, his calmer approach to life, and his ability to look at things from different perspectives. Inviting other kids over to make art together is an opportunity for Ayden to socialize with friends."
If you do art therapy at home with your child, don't worry if he draws only stick figures. It is the process that counts. Feel free to jump in and make art with your child. It's another opportunity to connect. You may create something more magnificent than either of you could have imagined.
STACEY L. NELSON, ATR-BC, is a professor at George Washington University’s Masters in Art Therapy Program and an art therapist for special needs students at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Rockville, Maryland.