This alternative therapy helps many children and adults with ADHD — not just burgeoning da Vincis and van Goghs — to hone their problem-solving skills, focus, communication, and more. Learn how it works here.
What is Art Therapy?
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as an integrative mental health practice that combines theories of human development and psychology with visual arts to help clients improve psychological health, cognitive abilities, and sensory-motor functions. It combines talk therapy with the creative process, thus pairing verbal and nonverbal expression for better overall results.
During art therapy, patients create works of art — a process that helps them work through emotions, resolve conflicts, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem/awareness, and achieve insight. This form of alternative treatment is based on the premise that art helps express emotions – anxiety, depression, or anger – that are sometimes difficult to express in words.
How Does Art Therapy Work?
Art therapy was first used in the 1940s, but only in the last 20 years have advances in neuroscience allowed clinicians to understand this: Each time a patient put a brush to paper, she is engaging in problem solving and decision making, which stimulates neuropathways and activates different parts of the brain.
Specifically, sensory and kinesthetic experiences that involve touch, movement, visuals, and sound activate the cerebellum, a primitive part of the brain. Working with wet clay, for example, uses gross motor skills and accesses the cerebellum, which can release tension and awaken the senses.
Activities like painting activate the midbrain and the limbic system, where emotional regulation takes place. Paint is a fluid material, which can be more difficult to control – like emotions – and can be satisfying to manipulate with a paintbrush or the hands. Painting builds the ability to control gross motor skills and feelings.
The cerebrum is the highest functioning part of the brain, where reasoning, executive functioning, and complex memory live – its areas of expertise are cognition and symbolism. Activities like drawing with pencil or charcoal and collages stimulate the creative process and planning center here.
Who is Art Therapy for?
Art therapy can benefit anyone of any age, with no technical skills required. The benefit is in the practice of making art, not the appeal of the final piece. Art therapists emphasize the effort over the outcome.
“As an art therapist,” says Stacey Nelson, LCPC, LCPAT, ATR-BC, “I’m more interested in the process over the product. I’m more likely to comment on positive behavior than how the work looks.”
Children tend to be less self-conscious than adults when invited to make art, but art therapy can still benefit older tweens, teens, and adults who are motivated to create.
Art therapy helps some children (and adults) who communicate their thoughts more easily though visual images and art making – and who are more comfortable with pictures than they are with words. “Art can be a safe way to express things that are emotionally charged,” Nelson says. It is also used with children who express intense emotions while making art. Parents who find a child’s artwork disturbing or worrisome often seek out an art therapist for help decoding an upsetting drawing or collage.
Art therapy can be especially effective for active, busy children with ADHD, as it keeps their hands moving and triggers an acute mental and emotional focus not always seen in talk therapy.
How Much Does Art Therapy Cost?
Each art therapy session can cost from $45 to $200, depending on the session length, location, and clinician.
Some schools offer art therapy sessions as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at no cost to parents.
Who Can Administer Art Therapy?
Art therapists take courses on psychological theory and art techniques. The minimum education is a Master’s degree, but many art therapists have even higher education.
When choosing an art therapist, the following credentials signal appropriate training:
- ATR: Indicates the professional has met training standards to register with the national art therapy credentialing board
- ATR-BC: Indicates the professional has passed the national art therapy board certification test
- State Licensure-LCPAT: Indicates the professional has a license with the state (only required in some states)
The AATA directory at arttherapy.org is the best place to find a local therapist and links to state chapter websites.
Art therapists may work in a school context, as an IEP service, or in a private practice.
How Can Art Therapy Help a Child with ADHD?
Art projects typically involve a series of ordered steps that work to scaffold the learning process. Following them in order can help build controlled attention and attention-sequencing skills for children with ADHD. For example, the child uses focus to select a project or material. Then, the child uses working memory to recall completed steps, and engages selective attention to ignore distractions – like a dog barking outside – while working on the art project.
Artists regularly practice problem solving and frustration tolerance, as art often doesn’t manifest exactly as planned. Children with ADHD build mental flexibility by problem-solving any obstacles they encounter while making art – like coloring outside a line, or gluing a piece in the wrong spot.
Making art creates natural moments to express thoughts and feelings in an environment that is often less threatening than talk therapy. Some emotions are difficult to discuss, but can be expressed effectively in a drawing or painting.
Making art gives children the opportunity to explain what they made to a parent, teacher, or classmate. It creates natural moments for positive social interactions, like sharing materials, sharing space, making compliments, or even making suggestions. It can be easier for children to talk about artwork than themselves.
Each project contributes to a visual record of progress from one session to the next and reviewing finished artwork can strengthen long-term memory. In addition, a completed piece of art can inspire pride and positive self-esteem.
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