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Art Therapy with Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum in a School Setting.

Published: Oct 24, 10:08 am

I was recently giving an art therapy PowerPoint presentation to the governors of a special school I work at, and was struck by their surprised expressions in response to the students art work I was showing them. Their surprise was triggered, I suspect, by a couple of things: the imaginative quality of the work and a fresh glimpse into the worlds of those labelled ‘autistic’. Those who work with children and adolescents on the autism spectrum often witness only the externals – odd social behaviours and unusual ways of communicating. And for those who do not work in any professional capacity with them, the images they receive are of oddball characters like Doc Martin on TV or savants like artist Stephen Wiltshire. But is the so called autistic mind all that removed from the ‘neurotypical’ one? And if there is a difference, isn’t it true that those on the autism spectrum have something valuable to offer the world?

Art therapy goes behind the externals and shows us an inside world that breaks down the stereotypes, challenging the expectations that people have about autism. I think this is what surprised the governors. On my PowerPoint there were images created by one fifteen year old male student that showed a mature understanding of the negative side of the personality, something that we all wrestle with at times. This young man had a quirky habit of carrying on a conversation with himself, a behaviour that nevertheless belied an insightful mind, expressed through powerful paintings of African type masks, portraying the good and the bad side of us all. Some other works, the expressions of an extremely withdrawn, non-communicative sixteen year old girl, conveyed the yearning of a young soul wanting to connect meaningfully with others. Her images were metaphorical self-portraits, inviting the viewer to acknowledge her presence – ‘Look, this is me, I’m just like everybody else, wanting to be loved and accepted.’ More images, the work of another fifteen year old male student, were cartoons that made the governors laugh as they recognized their own foibles captured in the comical presentations of the cartoon characters struggling with themes of anger, fear and difficult choices. The exaggerated facial expressions of cartoon people are easily legible, an area of body language in the real world that those on the autism spectrum have difficulty reading.

As my PowerPoint demonstrated, art therapy invites us to view a world that goes some way to dissolve the boundary between ‘them’ and ‘us’, that in fact accentuates the continuum of what it means to be human, broadening the concept of what is ‘normal’. As Donna Williams writes (2000, 19),

‘Some people with autism, like anybody else, identify with their behaviour and consider it a part of themselves and their personality. To people like this, attempts to make them behave in a way that is unnatural to them may be a demonstration of a non- comprehending world that is lacking in tolerance and empathy.’


Williams, d.(2000). Autism, an inside – out approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.