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HeARTs for Autism®
Supporting Families and Raising Awareness for the Autism Spectrum Disorders

Coloring Outside The Lines®

How we can help our Spectrum children…

The arts can have profound effect on all persons. Children are especially open to how creative expression enhances their world. Experts agree that the arts are a natural means for children to play and learn. The benefits of arts participation and education are many: motivates children in learning, stimulates memory, facilitates understanding, enhances symbolic communication, strengthens problem-solving, develops imagination and critical thinking, builds self confidence and a sense of craftsmanship. The arts play a central role in cognitive, motor, language and social-emotional development.

When working with Spectrum children, the key is to allow the opportunity for creative expression. Given the nature of the condition, some children will easily engage in some activities OR they can strongly resist an activity for various reasons. As the caregiver, without judgment, look to see where interests may lie. Look for what they crave in sensory stimulation or what they resist. These become clues on how to proceed.

A very important rule is to detach from outcome. In a results based society, along with a condition that is often measured by what is and isn’t being done, this rule can be very hard. However, when encouraging creativity, freedom is necessary. There is a balance between providing structure, so creative expression can occur, and imposing structure, so we get the results we think we want.

With children on the Spectrum, this is a process. Art is a process, though we tend to focus on the finished product – the painting, the dance, the song, the performance, sculpture, story, etc. We often confuse creative with artistic, and place high expectations on the results. What we want to do is allow fun – PLAY. The art of play is quite therapeutic for the participant and the observer/helper.

We are allowing parts of the brain to express in ways that might otherwise be limited. More importantly, we allow the heart to express. Projects are not to be stressful, but joyful. All forms of the arts can have a healing effect, simply because they allow the person to experience themselves in a wholer way. One person may have deficits in communication but sing beautifully or draw beautifully. He/she gets to share who they are in a different way – an expanded way. Another person may creatively express by lines or movements we don’t understand directly, but what is important is that the process occurs. When we encourage creativity, an amazing integration occurs on all levels for that person: body, mind and spirit.

Affirming the creative process for the Spectrum child allows a sense of personal achievement. Art is more than just an “extra” activity. It can open the heart and mind – for them and us. As we explore and play together creatively, we also improve skills in planning, organizing, problem solving, language, expression, self regulation, self esteem, confidence, willingness to participate socially, fine motor skills, math and reading. The arts can help a person to make sense of the world around them. The arts build a bridge from heart to heart.

If Autism is coloring outside the lines, then how can we help?

First, appreciate the beauty of the person you are working with!!!

Then look to see what purpose the “lines” serve. Sometimes, it is okay to just scribble all over… Other times we need the lines to provide structure and make sense of what we are doing. Have the child help you decide what approach to take. Sometimes the same project will change several times to meet many different needs. In music, banging drums is very useful - sometimes with no pattern - and sometimes with pattern. Again it depends on what is happening with the child/person.

In ALL activities be open and aware. Look for the moments to genuinely engage and interact. Truly ENJOY when the connection is visible. Other times know, that simply being present and allowing is the real healing “art.”

We suggest having supplies of all kinds of things. Literally ANYTHING can be used for creative expression. One time my son tangled up my black sewing thread into a large knot - it became a FLY! A fly that could sing, dance, tickle, draw and paint. It was the paint that did the fly in – too messy, but we had fun with it.

Experiment with music – see what types are liked; what calms; what excites. Make instruments out of anything in the house. Dance around. If the child is musical, please seek a professional to provide lessons.

Make characters from the stories they love. Puppets or pictures. Encourage creative interaction. This works whether verbal or nonverbal and can help with reading abilities.

Some people use video cameras to record the child and play back for them to watch. Seeing themselves sometimes gives a new awareness. It can be used to teach new behaviors.

”Art” takes many forms: Include cooking and gardening, even decorating the house, when looking for opportunities.

Fixations are opportunities - One child was fascinated with rocks. He collected them, threw them, slept with them, hid them and one day made a mosaic that was extraordinarily beautiful. Another liked spinning plates. Nothing interested him more than that - Until painting the plates caught his imagination. At some point the Auto – SELF – stimulating fixations can be a bridge by which we meet one another. Then a chance for interaction, even for developmental gain, can occur.

Be creative yourself! Stop and take time to have some fun. Maybe buy some flowers and arrange them. Enjoy something you find beautiful. Read something uplifting. Listen to music and see what you feel – how would you express it artistically. The list is endless. Just connect to love and beauty and remember to appreciate the gift of you. Appreciate the gift of your child. Appreciate the uniqueness of your journey together. Appreciate your hearts as art.

© 2005-2014 HeARTs for Autism®, Robin V. Schwoyer

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