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Art Therapy for Adolescents with Autism



Description of the population

There are major behavioral challenges with most typically developing adolescents.  However, when dealing with an adolescent with Autism even more behaviors can surface as their bodies, emotions and thoughts are changing and developing. When adolescents with Autism go through puberty, they have the same hormonal activity taking place as the neurotypical teens do. They can become more non-communicative, moody and unpredictable as these biological changes are occurring.

Adolescence is a time for social maturity to take form, however teens with Autism very often lack contact with friends outside of school, saying they are never called or invited to social activities, according to a recent study.  Data from more than 11,000 middle and high school-age students in special education and found that teens with autism who struggle with conversational and social skills are significantly less likely than their peers to spend time with friends or report having a social life (Shattuck PT, Orsmond GI, Wagner M, Cooper BP, 2011).


How Art Therapy can serve the adolescent population

An Art Therapy program should strive to provide adolescents with a therapeutic yet social experience that encourages creative expression. It needs to incorporate a full variety of creative projects that allows participants to develop their fine motor, communication, and most importantly, social skills. The art making process is healing and helps adolescents develop and learn through non-threatening and creative activities.

A therapeutic program should offer a safe and enjoyable sensory experience that helps create a calm and regulated state for the adolescent; this in turn often helps them open up and express their feelings. Art therapists who work with this population need to be trained in counseling techniques as well as the use of visual expression. This with the verbal counseling is an excellent combination in helping the adolescent with communication issues.

Methods, materials, and program ideas for the adolescents

Using a variety of materials and approaches, the goal of the Art Therapist is to engage, inspire, and help adolescents develop their social skills with peers, communicate more effectively and ultimately experience the joy of creative expression.


1)     Phototherapy: The use of photos such as personal snapshots, family albums, and pictures taken by self or others as a means to access personal awareness and enhance communication during art therapy sessions.  Scrapbook or journaling projects can be developed with the use of photos and other creative materials.


2)     Fabric and Textile Arts: This artisan-style approach utilizes a variety of projects that may become more long-term; taking several weeks to complete. Such projects may include: quilting, pillow making, weaving, needle crafts, and other fabric based art. Some instructional sessions may be required for participants to learn sewing or other crafting techniques. Modifications and adaptations can be incorporated for those who need assistance.


3)     Pop-culture/ theme based: Using current trends in music, television, fashion, and other multi-media, adolescents will be able to express their individuality and engage in creative activities appropriate for their generation. A variety of creative projects such as designing CD covers, creating style collages, and word art are examples of this approach.


4)     Inspiration Art/Art History: With this approach, historical pieces of art are presented in order to inspire participants in a particular style of art or to learn about famous artists. Photographs, slides, or videos may be used as a starting point to give the adolescents a visual and concrete reference point. There may be some instructional sessions included to help the participants achieve the look they want.



Shattuck PT, Orsmond GI, Wagner M, Cooper BP (2011) Participation in Social Activities among Adolescents with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27176. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027176


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