Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Before the Meltdown: Sensory, Emotional and Behavioral Interplay

Most children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum have difficulty regulating their emotions and maintaining a calm state as we know. Children with autism and special needs go through similar emotional challenges as typical children do, but it takes them longer to get through them and it may take some creative techniques. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to recognize which emotions may be prominent in the child with ASD because sensory needs may look like an emotional or behavioral reaction.

Parents, teachers and therapists can help by recognizing the emotions and offering empathy when behaviors escalate. De-escalation is the key. By learning about the child’s sensory issues, and behavioral triggers we can begin to recognize the signs before hand; and thereby help the child regulate and avoid an emotional meltdown.

If and when emotions become overwhelming to the child, try to acknowledge those feelings and not stop them from being expressed. Tell the child that when he cries it is caused by a feeling and that it will pass like a dark cloud. The sun will come out again, even though it feels like the sky is falling. Help him learn to take a few slow deep breaths when he first begins to feel upset.

In our creative arts therapy groups or in any other social skills or therapeutic groups, we can address these issues both in neutral times, when there is no upset as well as when a child in the group starts have difficulties. We can praise the children when we see them regulating themselves and we can offer mirroring for when we notice that negative behaviors are escalating.

A child may start banging the table and fidgeting, so we need to recognize this behavior whether out of frustration or another sensory need and take it as a “sign”. We may reflect back to the child either verbally, “I see you are banging the table Johnny, sometimes it is hard to stay in our seats…. And you are doing so well…..” Or perhaps, non-verbally bang along with the child and create a playful interchange. (I have offered clay or model magic and that seems to work wonders for frustration control) However, that banging on the table could have in fact been a sensory need to move, or hear sound, or just feel the table against his hands. We may not always get it right, but we are still recognizing the need. In any case, as we get to know the children in our classes or groups we can distinguish their needs, emotions and behaviors.

Taking breaks and using sensory toys and art materials may help a child regulate when frustration levels seem overwhelming within the group. When a child needs that break, have an aide work with them for a set amount of time a little bit away from the group; not leaving the room entirely unless necessary. Then allow that child to slowly rejoin the activity when ready and then praise them for their efforts.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Integrating Art Therapy and the DIR/Floortime Model

In recent years, there has been a great effort to meet a rising need and demand for innovative and therapeutic services that can give children on the Autism Spectrum the best chance to develop intellectually and socially; to discover their talents and to cope with their challenges. There are more creative art therapists offering services for this population, but are seeking effective and imaginative ways to work without compromising the goals of the field.

Art Therapy can help the child with Autism in many ways. Some main areas that art therapists focus on include: increasing communication and social skills, developing a sense of individuality, building of relationships, and facilitating sensory integration (Betts, 2005). Children on the Autism Spectrum struggle with all these challenges in varying degrees however communication is an area that will affect them the greatest. We need to define what communication is for the child with Autism. It is not just language as a form of communication, but rather the totality of the communicative framework that appears from infancy onward which experts such as Daniel Stern and Donald Winnicott theorize. (Evans and Dubowski, 2007). We need to understand these basic areas and become aware of the level which the child with Autism is functioning developmentally in order to provide appropriate therapeutic interventions.

The DIR®/Floortime™ Model( Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based) is a systematic way of working with the child that enables him to climb the developmental ladder and takes him back to the milestones that may have been missed earlier on (Greenspan and Weider, 1998). The six milestones within the model include: 1) Self regulation and interest in the world, 2) Intimacy, 3) Two-way communication, 4) Complex communication, 5) Emotional ideas, and 6) Emotional thinking. This model is a framework that helps clinicians, parents and educators perform a comprehensive assessment and develop an intervention program tailored to the unique challenges and strengths of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental challenges. Greenspan explains that the five activities to engage children in Floortime are to observe, approach, follow the child's lead, extend and expand play, and let the child close the circle of communication.

The Creative Arts Therapies combined with the DIR®/Floortime™ Model creates a unique and comprehensive approach that accomplishes these tasks. The blend of a child-centered focus along with creative and expressive modalities brings together a dynamic and integrative model that children thrive on. Art Therapy can help children with sensory issues or deficits “play” with materials in their own way and at their own pace; then develop a system of regulation to participate in artistic expression. Dance and Movement Therapy has been incorporated successfully as well; using the kinesthetic qualities to help children move purposefully and engage socially in sensorial activities. Dr. John Carpente, a music therapist has incorporated the DIR®/Floortime™ Model into his work as well. He states that the therapist’s task is to improvise music built around the child’s responses, reactions, responses, and/or movements to engage him or her in a musical experience that will facilitate (musical) relatedness, communication, socialization, and awareness (Carpente, 2009).

Art Therapy has unique qualities that help the child with Autism. Many children with Autism tend to be visual learners and traditional methods of instruction can often be quite challenging. Therefore, visual art directives and projects are a great way to help children with Autism learn and communicate, as well as interact and function in the world.


Betts, D. J. (2005). The art of art therapy: Drawing individuals out in creative ways. Advocate: Magazine of the Autism Society of America, 26-27.

Carpente, J (2009). The Effectiveness of Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy within a Developmental, Individual-Differences, Relationship-based (DIR®)/Floortime™ Framework to the Treatment of Children with Autism. Dissertation, Temple University.

Evans, K., & Dubowski, J. (2001). Art Therapy with children on the Autistic Spectrum: Beyond Words. London, UK: Jessica Kingley.

Greenspan, S. and Wieder, S. (1998). The child with special needs. USA: Da Capo Press.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“Hands-on” Learning for ASD Through Visual and Creative Modalities

Many children with autism tend to be visual learners and traditional methods of instruction can often be quite challenging. For example, while the average child learns language through social interactions by mimicking the words they hear in everyday conversations, children with autism spectrum disorder may not absorb speech and language skills as readily. Often, children with autism do not imitate others in the same way that average children do, making it necessary to take a more direct approach. Signed speech, which uses sign language in conjunction with spoken language to visually reinforce new words and concepts, is a hands-on approach to teaching speech and language skills.

Hands on projects use that same principle of multisensory learning, combining visual, tactile, and verbal stimuli to teach new skills and concepts, appealing to the learning characteristics of many autistic children. Hands on projects can be integrated into nearly any learning experience. For example, you can tell a story while working together to illustrate it with simple drawings that can aid in comprehension, while keeping children engaged in social interaction. Paper cutouts, used to act out a story as it is read can be great literacy and comprehension reinforcement, and having the child participant in creating them offers another hands-on activity.

• Drawing and coloring flashcards can help in the development of fine motor skills while teaching letter and number recognition, or decorating them with fabrics and objects of varying textures can add tactile elements to the lesson.
• Mixing instant puddings or homemade play dough can help children learn to follow simple instructions with the help of tactile stimulation to maintain attention.
• Older children can benefit from cooking or baking projects, learning math skills through measuring ingredients and gaining competency in following directions. Also, getting to eat the finished product is a tangible reward for a job well done.
• Art projects that correspond with lesson plans for the day can be very helpful in reinforcing academic subjects, such as making clay models of animals or objects learned about earlier in the day.
• Model building, painting, or drawing projects can bring history or social studies lessons firmly into focus for autistic children, and lessons on plant biology can be brought home with a plant growing project.

Short attention spans are common in children with autism, another issue that is often eased with the use of hands on projects for autistic students. Active learning can be a great help in keeping children focused, alert, and engaged, making it easier to stay on task. If attention span becomes an issue when hands on projects are underway, divide each project into small steps with breaks given after each one. Lengthening those intervals between breaks gradually can help the child slowly build a more appropriate attention span.

Hands on projects are a great way to teach children on the spectrum. In fact, all child can benefit from the combination of activity and education that these modalities offer. In an integrated learning environment, hands on projects can help children with autism interact and cooperate with other children, promoting understanding and fostering those vital social and communication skills. And of course hands on projects are much more fun for all involved.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ASD Parent-Child Dyad

I found in my practice with ASD that the parent-child dyad can be a wonderful way to work if the circumstances are right. It enables me to model for the parent and offer creative strategies and techniques for their child. But even beyond that it is an enriching experience for me as the therapist as well. I learn how parent and child relate and communicate with each other; helping me work better for the child.
I currently have a client where I am fortunate to have this situation. The mom is very open to working with her son (around 9 years old with moderate ASD) and helping him to discover his inner creativity. Having her part of the session is also a great asset because she can comfort and "regulate" him when over stimulation occurs. She then becomes a model for me as well!

So how does this dyad really work? Besides having mom there for a comfort to the child, she is able to tap into her own process. In addition, I can sense the energy and synergy between mother and child; bringing them back to the beginning stages of attachment. This helps the child explore the creative modalities that I present to the both of them. The trust is there and the child and mom play off each other with my direction.

However, the session must still have a structure. This child (like most ASD children) thrives on this and behavorial strategies are still incorporated maintaining focus and engagement. I have adapted a child-centered approach by combining it with behavorial techniques-not easy, but possible. There is a lot of mirroring, but also redirecting. Slightly contradictory in nature, but still balances the session quite nicely. There are limits set and he responds well to this. However, within the limits, I always include choice making.

The mom and I set the stage together. We create a "schedule" for her son to visually see and have him make choices (he is verbal) about what activities he would like to include. Throughout the course of the session, we refer back to the schedule and cross off the activities that we have already completed. This feels comforting for the child as he maintains awareness and control by actively knowing what is next.

I also allow for breaks when needed. This allows the child to regulate his sensory needs. He gets up and jumps, stretches, goes to the bathroom, has a snack, or just relaxes. Sensory issues and/or basic needs can sometimes come up during the session and all that is needed is a "mini" break. For example, he has oral needs and will eat a chewy fruit snack and be fine. I may have not known this if mom was not available.

I am not sure if this approach would work for all children. I do know that at the end of the session, it appears that both this mom and her child are satisfied and have enjoyed the creative process and activities presented. At times, she becomes so overwhelmed by his accomplishments it is quite emotional to witness. The artwork lines the kitchen counter and both mom and her son gaze together very proud; feeling good about the time spent together making art.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Art Therapy Groups for ASD- How to Manage Behaviors in a Creative Environment

One of the challenges of conducting therapy groups for children is to balance structure with creative freedom. This is especially true for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, because their behaviors can be very unpredictable causing the group to become chaotic and unsettling. So therefore a structured environment is essential and very often what this population thrives on. So, how can the art therapist still allow for creativity and mastery when behaviors are getting in the way? Not an easy task, but it can be done.


What kind of structure is needed? Well, it basically depends on the functioning level of the group but all in all I find it best to have a set plan of art making within a theme that the children can enjoy and relate to. For example "The Beach" or "Zoo Animals" and then have materials to support the theme, even sensory toys and books related to the theme helps to have on hand. Although as art therapists we try not to influence the art making, I always try to make a "sample" of the project to allow the children to have a visual representation; this very often is helpful to get them started. It is also useful to have "group rules" established before engaging in activity; this serves as a behavioral structure and will set boundaries for unaccepted behaviors.


Building social skills are a big component to ASD groups. Art making can allow for this to occur by designing the groups to "work together" or cooperatively. Murals, group collages and quilt making can allow this to happen. While children are engaging in the art making process, the therapist should always be mirroring back the accomplishments of each child's successes. Something as small as sharing a crayon can reinforce the skills being built. In addition, commenting on art elements within the child's work is great way to encourage individual creativity and to engage others in sharing thoughts as well. Making connections within the group is very powerful too. For example saying, "Look Johnny….. Billy's painting has the same bright green that your picture has……is that one of your favorite colors? Maybe it's Billy's favorite color, let's ask him…."


Some children on the spectrum who are lower functioning will need more assistance in order to participate in the group. Until they are comfortable in their surroundings some children will require a 1:1 aide within the group to help manage behaviors. It will benefit the child as well as the therapist to have this extra help in order to maintain group cohesion. As the child becomes more adaptable, the aide can be less involved and eventually weaned out of the group. In addition, the groups should have a manageable number of children based on available aides and volunteers. The ratio should be determined based on functioning level as well. An ideal group size is about 4-6 children with a lead therapist and at least one assistant as well as an aide for behavioral children.


One last thing to keep in mind when working with children on the spectrum is the choice of materials for art making. Make sure you are aware of sensory issues within the group as well as allergies and aversions which children with ASD often have. It is best to build up a tolerance to messier materials which can often be regressive. Painting is fine, however put out small amounts and use spill proof containers. Make sure that when messy materials are being presented there are enough aides to provide support and "hand over hand" assistance. Letting parents know beforehand is a good idea for dressing down and having smocks is a good idea as well.


Hope this is helpful and will have more on this topic to come………

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders:
Psychosocial Adaptation, Sibling Relationships and Parental Stress Factors

(This was a proposal/ assignment for a Research Methods class at Montclair State University, however, I do want to execute the study in the near future)

I. Purpose
The purpose of this study is to examine the siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and discover how this condition along with parental stress factors influences their own psychosocial structure and the relationship with their disabled sibling.

II. Definition of Terms

1) Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are a group of developmental disorders which are derived from the disorder Autism (sometimes called “classical autism”) Autism is characterized by a variety of behavioral deficits such as impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests.
The ASD’s include Asperger’s syndrome, Rett’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). (

III. Justification of Study
In recent years, Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been receiving a lot of attention in both the educational as well as medical fields. Approximately mid-point during the twentieth century is when the name for this disorder first appeared; and now it affects an estimated 3.4 in every 1,000 children ages 3-10. It has been made clear that Autism can create disruption in families and unfulfilled lives for many children
( A lot of research is being done to investigate the causes of this disorder from an organic and biochemical perspective. At the same time, there is equal work and research being done to explore treatments plans, behavioral approaches and interventions for the ASD child in the educational setting.
Currently, there appears to be a growing interest in how this disorder affects families. A recent study investigated family resilience of children with autism; showing such effects as connectedness and closeness, positive meaning-making of the disability and spiritual and personal growth. (Bayat, 2007) However, Autism in any form is still a stressful condition to deal with; the parents and the other children in the family will in no doubt be influenced by this fact. Numerous studies involving the psychosocial adjustments, behaviors and coping skills of siblings of children with ASD have appeared in the last ten years showing the importance and interest in this area. (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2002; Roeyers & Buysse, 2003; Macks & Reeve, 2007; Orsmond, Kuo & Seltzer, 2009). Interestingly, these recent studies show inconsistencies. There are many reviewed studies that have discovered negative outcomes for the siblings; which include feelings of being alone and increased behavior problems due to the ASD of their brother or sister. However these fail to indicate the conditions of the environment and various circumstances that may have an effect on these conclusions (Rivers & Stoneman, 2003).
In a typical family, siblings play together and develop supportive relationships through intimate daily contact with each other during their childhood years. Both nurturance and conflict play a part in developing a sense of emotional understanding, self-regulation and feeling comfortable with their sense of belonging. (Orsmond & Seltzer, 2007) In families where there is a child with ASD, the sibling relationship may be compromised but at the very least, different than in a typical family; this is mainly due to the fact that the ASD sibling may lack such things as play or social skills. In addition, stress factors of the parents also have an effect on this dynamic. Sometimes parents may feel inadequate in handling their Autistic child and this stress may ultimately make regular family activities, such as trips or outings more difficult (Twoy, Connolly, & Novak, 2006; Higgins, Bailey, & Pearce, 2005). Changes in the family’s daily living and stressed behaviors of parents in connection with the ASD child may create resentment and subsequent difficulties in the sibling relationship.

IV. Annotated Bibliography
1) Bayat, M. (2007). Evidence of resilience in families of children with autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Vol. 51, part 9, p.702-714.
In this article, the author explores the factors of family resilience and states that despite the popularity of this area of study, little has been done in families with children that have disabilities. The conclusions indicate that a significant number of families of children with autism present factors of family resilience. Participants in this study were parents only, with no siblings involved in the data. Also within the article, there are aspects that are noted but not fully explored, such as parents being advocates for their autistic child. These, the author states may influence the elements of resilient families and may need further examination. In addition, the study has a major limitation regarding demographics; stating that about 63% of the participants were from middle to upper middle white families.

2) Kaminsky, L. & Dewey, D. (2002). Psychosocial adjustment in siblings of children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43 (2), p.225-232.
This article described a comparative study and used two other groups to measure the psychosocial adjustment of the siblings of children with autism; one being siblings of Down syndrome and the other siblings of normally developing children. It focused on feelings of loneliness and social support as well. There were several measures used: Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1991), Social Support Scale for Children (Harter, 1985), Loneliness and Social Dissatisfaction Questionnaire (Asher et al, 1984), Adaptive Behaviors Questionnaire, and Demographics Questionnaire. Ultimately, the study concluded that enhanced psychosocial adjustment of siblings of children with autism was associated with a larger number of siblings in the family. A major limitation noted in this study was that 80% of the siblings were older than the child with autism and because of the small number of younger participants analyses comparing these two were not possible. Therefore the findings may not be applicable to younger siblings.

3) Macks, R. & Reeve, R. (2007). The adjustment of non-disabled siblings of children with autism. Journal Autism Dev Disord., 37: 1060-1067.
In this study, siblings of autistic children were compared to siblings of non-disabled children. The outcome showed that having a child with autism seems to enhance the psychosocial and emotional well-being of their siblings when demographic risk factors are limited. Both children and parents participated in this study and were measured by standardized means. The children were asked to complete the Children Depression Inventory-Short Form (CDI-S) (Kovacs, 1992) as well as the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers, 1984). Parents completed Behavior Assessment System for Children-Parent Rating Scales (BASC-PRS) in relation to their non-disabled child. The study noted that positive results may have had some explanations. For example, siblings may have viewed themselves quite favorably as compared to their disabled brother or sister. Another factor from the parental perspective is that most parents of ASD may not have an accurate view of their typical child because they spend so much time caring for the child with autism. Discrepancies were noted between self-reports and parent reports; noting that most studies will have a single type of respondent however multiple types of respondents were advisable in this situation. Once again, demographics were emphasized in the discussion section indicating that future studies should examine race, religion, marital status, and gender of the ASD child.

4) Rivers, J.W. & Stoneman, Z. (2003). Sibling relationships when a child has autism: marital stress and support coping. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 33, no. 4.
This article is most relevant to my study because it involves the stress of the parents. As hypothesized by the author, when the marital stress levels were higher, the siblings and the relationships were more compromised. Overall however, the siblings did express satisfaction with their sibling relationships whereas parents were somewhat less positive. Parent-sibling triads were used in this study (1 parent, autistic child, typical child) and incorporated self- report inventories and questionnaires. Two main instruments were used in measuring results: Sibling Inventory of Behavior (SIB) (McHale & Gamble, 1987) and Satisfaction with the Sibling Relationship Scale (modified in 1989). Marital Stress was measured by a modified version of the FILE: Family Inventory of Life Events and Changes (McCubbin, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1996). The author stated that families who experienced extreme amounts of marital stress and sought a high level of formal supportive services outside the family, had more negative reports related to sibling relationships in comparison to families who sought lower levels of outside support. These findings, the author states, reinforce the importance of looking at family context as an important factor in assessing the qualities of the sibling relationship.

Achenbach, T.M. (1991). Manual for the child behavior checklist/4–18 and 1991 profiles. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Department of Psychiatry.
Asher, S.R., Hymel, S., & Renshaw, P.D. (1984). Loneliness in children. Child Development, 55, 1456–1454.
Bayat, M. (2007). Evidence of resilience in families of children with autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Vol. 51, part 9, p.702-714.
Harter, S. (1985). Manual for the Social Support Scale for Children. Denver, CO: University of Denver.
Higgins, D., Bailey, S., & Pearce, J. (2005) Factors associated with functioning style and coping strategies of families with a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 9(2), 125-137.
Kaminsky, L. & Dewey, D. (2002). Psychosocial adjustment in siblings of children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43 (2), p.225-232.
Kovacs, M. (1992). The children’s depression inventory: Manual. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems, Inc.
Macks, R. & Reeve, R. (2007). The adjustment of non-disabled siblings of children with autism. Journal Autism Dev Disord., 37: 1060-1067.
McCubbin, H. I., Thompson, A. I., & McCubbin, M. A. (1996). Family assessment: Resiliency, coping, and adaptation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.
McHale, S. M., & Gamble, W. C. (1987). Sibling relationships and adjustment of children with disabled brothers and sisters. Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 19, 131–158. (2009) National Institute of Health/ National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Orsmond, G.I., Kuo, H., & Seltzer, M. (2009). Siblings of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder: Sibling relationships and well-being in adolescence and adulthood. Sage Publications and the National Autistic Society, Vol. 13 (1) p. 59-80

Orsmond, G. I. & Seltzer, M. (2007). Siblings of individuals with autism spectrum disorders across the life course. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13:313-320.
Piers, E. V. (1984). Piers–Harris children’s self-concept scale: Revised manual. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
Rivers, J.W. (2008). Child temperaments, differential parenting, and the sibling relationships of children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal Dev Disorders, 38: 1740-1750.
Rivers, J.W. & Stoneman, Z. (2003). Sibling relationships when a child has autism: marital stress and support coping. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 33, no. 4.
Twoy, R., Connolly, P.M. & Novak, J.M. (2007). Coping strategies used by parents of children with autism. Journal of the Academy of Nurse Practioners,19, p. 251-260.

Creative Commons License
Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: by Pamela Ullmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Art Makes Sense- Sensory Art Therapy

Creative art making can offer unique ways for children to gain a sense of control and mastery of their environment, grow in self expression, self awareness and self-esteem. This holds true for children with special needs, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and other developmental issues as well. However, these children very often have “sensory” issues or sensory integration disorder which can affect their responses to various art materials.
That is why it is important to have a trained and credentialed art therapist or related professional assess the child and create a customized program that can help the child with sensory issues while at the same time engage in creative expression.

Children may experience deficits in one or several sensory areas; the most often observed is visual processing, auditory processing, and “tactile defensiveness” (an aversion to certain textures and touching). Art making with an experienced therapist can often break through these issues in a fun and non-threatening way; enabling the child to experience new and creative expression.

Visual Techniques:
Art making is obviously a visual modality, but those children with visual processing issues may need adaptations, concrete steps, and prompts in order to follow effectively. Sometimes using a page border helps contain the image making. Using dark colors on white paper or white chalk on black paper can create maximum contrast. Utilizing thicker crayons and markers can build a stronger visual focus. Also, the therapist can incorporate dotted lines as a “starter” for the child to trace around lines or shapes. Another processing technique is to present materials in a clock-like manner one by one; avoiding too many materials in the working space.

Helpful Techniques for Auditory Processing Difficulties
• Combine verbal instructions with sign language or hand motions
• Make sure the art making activity is presented in a quiet room or area
• Utilize pictures or “samples” of a particular art project when giving directions
• Use visual cues when transitioning from one activity to another along with instructions (such as flashing lights on and off in the room)

What is Tactile Defensiveness?
The main cause is neurological disorganization in the midbrain region of the brain which is basically responsible for filtering incoming stimuli, and, may not sufficiently screen out all extraneous tactile stimulation causing the child to perceive the input as extreme and uncomfortable. The central nervous system ability to process tactile sensory input is distorted causing the child great discomfort. Their brain may register subtle sensations as extreme irritation or even painful and he may respond in an abnormally reactive way such as grimacing or pulling away from the stimulus.

Sensory based art making is a fascinating modality that allows children to engage in creative expression with no pressures. Using this approach, an Art Therapist can assess the severity of tactile issues and can help the child build tolerance in this area. Depending on the nature of the tactile defensiveness, the art therapist can use materials within the art making or as a separate activity of just playing with the materials; this starts the process of de-sensitizing the child in a fun and non-threatening manner.

Here are some art and play materials that are often used:
• Cornstarch and water play (creates a “gooey-like substance)
• Feathers, chenille, pom-poms to create “texture collages”
• Water-play using food dye and various containers
• Play dough, putty, and other modeling compounds
• String, felt, other craft materials
• Sand –art
• Shaving cream finger-painting
• Rice, shredded tissue paper

The list goes on and the therapist can create recipes and projects that are tailored to the child’s interests to encourage engagement. The caution here would be to go slowly and not overwhelm or over stimulate the child with an abundance of tactile materials. Let the child take the lead and if the child responds negatively, make a note and try new materials.

Creative Commons License
Art Makes Sense-Sensory Art Therapy by Pamela Ullmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Painting with wheels!!

Although it has been a while since I have ran a "Wheel Art" workshop, I did find it very gratifying to help children create works of art with their own wheels!

What is Wheel Art?
Wheel Art is a unique activity for individuals who are wheel chair dependent. Each “wheel artist” uses the wheels of their chair to paint onto a large canvas secured to the floor. The artists all contribute their own style, color and unique patterns that create an amazing community mural to be shared.

Who Can Participate in Wheel Art?
The wheel artist may wheel themselves; either manually or through a powered wheel chair. Or, if they are not able to do so an assistant can help them move across the surface. Children, young adults and older adults all enjoy wheel art. Wheel art is empowering for the person confined to a wheel chair because it allows them to express their creativity in an exceptional way. Just as each person is unique, the patterns from their wheels are as well; they reflect a part of themselves which is “one of a kind”. After the piece is completed the artists can proudly look back and recognize their own tread marks on the canvas; feeling a part of a community of special individuals.

Painting with Wheels
Different painting techniques are used to achieve successful application onto the wheels. Non-toxic acrylic paints along with various brushes and rollers are used in conjunction with special additives to maximize paint vibrancy and fluidity.

Each wheel artist chooses a color to paint with. After successfully loading the wheels with their chosen color, the artist moves their chair through and across the surface of the canvas creating patterns and linear shapes throughout. Sometimes, a favorite song is played in the background while the painting takes place. The experience then becomes a “dance” with their chairs as well as a visual art activity. A wonderful process with a beautiful product!

For more information on having a "Wheel Art Day" for artists in wheel chairs, please email

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Autism and Creative Arts Therapy

An Emerging Need
Data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2007 revealed a startlingly high prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in New Jersey children: 10.6 per 1,000, or one child in every 94.
School systems, health care facilities, and community service agencies struggle to meet a rising need and demand for innovative services that can give children on the autism spectrum the best chance to develop intellectually and socially, to discover their talents and cope with their challenges. Parents and siblings of children on the autism spectrum also need supportive services to cope with the stress of their children’s special needs.
We aim to develop a comprehensive creative arts therapy curriculum for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, including Art Therapy, Music Therapy and Dance Therapy. In addition, we will offer creative workshops and healing groups for overstressed family members.
Creative Arts Therapies for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Creative arts therapies offer many benefits for children on the autism spectrum:
• Engaging hard-to-reach youth: Simply put, creative arts therapies are fun. Even children who resist other interventions may participate eagerly in Art, Music, and Dance Therapy
• Sensory Stimulation and Integration: Because children on the autism spectrum have heightened sensory needs, they often respond well to the multisensory stimulation and concrete, hands-on approach inherent in art, music, and dance therapy. Music and dance help to integrate the body and increase sensory tolerance.
• Socialization: Sharing art and performing together can help children on the autism spectrum build social skills and bond with peers.
• Communication and Self-Expression: Creative arts provide a precious medium of self-expression for children with limited or no verbal communication.
• Building the Imagination: Creative art therapies have unparalleled capacity to address imagination deficit, a classic characteristic of autism. Art therapy can help children with autism to build abstract thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility.
• Strengthening Family Relationships: Art therapy can also help families discover new ways of relating to children with autism spectrum disorders, and foster an appreciation of these children’s unique gifts. Workshops and healing groups targeted to parents and siblings of autistic children will help family members develop supportive peer relationships and coping skills.