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Sensory Integration Art Therapy for Children with Autism

I have written about art therapy and sensory processing before, but I believe it is worth reiterating again as I see a lot of children and teens that benefit from this. Just the other day, I had a session with a client with severe Autism and hearing impairment. As I offered him an array of paints and textural collage materials (mixed media), he began to connect with me. Although this multi-sensory hands-on project was messy and perhaps regressive, it still enabled him to gain a sense of trust and engage with the creative process.


Using art therapy and creative activities can offer unique ways for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) individuals to gain a sense of control and mastery of their environment, grow in self-expression, self-awareness and self-esteem. However, because these children very often have “sensory” issues or sensory processig disorder, this can affect their responses to various art materials.
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:
Combining verbal instructions with sign language or hand motions helps children understand because they can see it in action and hopefully connection the language component. It is important to make sure the art making activity is presented in a quiet room or area to cut down on distractions. Try to utilize pictures or “samples” of a particular art project when giving directions; this allows the child to refer back to the task in a concrete manner. Using visual cues when transitioning from one activity to another along with instructions (such as flashing lights on and off in the room) is helpful in establishing awareness as well as routine.


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.


Sensory 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.


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