Art therapy for children with autism – one size doesn’t fit all

Painting, working with wood, clay or another material – it’s all used in art therapy. Children with autism often have this kind of therapy, but just how effective is it? What works? And what doesn’t? It’s difficult to say, especially as the target group aren’t always able to give an answer themselves. Our lecturer-researcher for vocational therapy and the professorship Small N-Designs Celine Schweizer researched the subject for her PhD at Groningen University, working with vocational therapists and children with autism for her studies. The research is important as art therapy presents a lot of possibilities and there is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Art therapy can make it easier to talk

It’s often difficult for children with autism to process information. It could be that they hear instructions but that they don’t understand what they have to do. Schweizer: “They don’t always understand what is expected of them. Art therapy gives them a different way of processing information and can help raise their self-confidence, for instance. There’s no right or wrong, it’s a way of finding out what you like to do, what you find difficult to do and it’s a way of learning how to talk about it.”

The picture on the cover of Schweizer’s thesis was drawn by a ten year old boy. It was a conscious choice she explains. “It’s a portrait of a his cuddly toy. He tells it all his worries. He was able to do the painting after he’d been having fun and had built up his confidence while making other things. As he brushed over the canvas, painting the blue and white strokes of the toy’s fur, something beautiful happened: he started to tell his therapist more about the worries he shared with his toy.

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Customisation is important

Both art therapists and vocational therapy students took part in the various studies Schweizer undertook for her PhD. The final part of her research involved an evaluation of the therapy ‘Zelf in Beeld’ (Image of Self) Schweizer herself had developed. Twelve children with autism had followed the special therapy. “Art therapy has to suit the child and the therapist,” Schweizer explains. “My research showed that customisation is important in order to be able to bring about change.”

The result

The results of the therapy were predominantly positive. Schweizer: “Parents and teachers said the children were more comfortable with themselves, as did the children themselves. And most of the children became more flexible and social.” It gave them the opportunity to develop themselves. “While making art, they not only experience successes, they also learn to give words to their experiences.” The research clearly shows the kind of problems art therapy can be used for with children with autism, what the ingredients are for therapy and what the results are. “And this is not only important for the children and art therapists,” explains Schweizer, “but also for doctors, parents, teachers, referring practitioners and health insurance providers.”

Do you want to know more about Celine's research?

Watch the animation, download the thesis or follow the PhD ceremony live on 14 September at 6pm.