Art and Autism .. research..


This research paper is the result of my own personal struggles in trying to better manage and improve

the quality of life for my daughter Claire, and being a single parent trying to achieve the long elusive

Bachelors degree.  One of the constant road blocks in the years since my divorce were the recurring

safety concerns over  incidents  against Claire such as being spit on and rocks thrown at her .  Sometimes

she  even targeted by groups of children and taunted on the playground because of her interaction

difficulties .

The  interaction challenges are due to the fact that my oldest daughter is Autistic.  Her place on the

autism spectrum is the kind of Autism that school professionals have high hopes for her to make a

decent recovery to a functional life with enough intervention.  My challenge was learning to trust the

current school district and find more effective ways of expressing my concern about what I was seeing

from Claire on the home front without putting the school district on the defensive.

Since moving to Elma I have connected with other parents of children with special needs facing the

same kinds of challenges.  Communication difficulties between parents and the school system happen

frequently   on how to best open up new path ways of learning for the children and cross support the

interventions on the home front and vice versa.  The rapidly increasing numbers of special needs

children have put a strain never before experienced on school budgets.

The American School Systems are run in a linear based fashion.  This type of classroom management

is extremely difficult to survive for children with unique learning styles , socially as well as academically.

The simplified explanation of theory for social skill building is that eventually these children’s brain will

develop the neuro- pathways to develop the abilities needed to adapt to this method of learning.

My hope by writing this is to be able help other parents and school systems more effectively

communicate.  This new area of dialogue will hopefully open up new cost effective intervention

strategies that can be synthesized at home and on the school front .  Therefore strengthening the

opportunities to support these unique learners to the life they are the most capable of living.


Research question:

How can art be used to help people with emotional and comprehension processing delays resulting

from neurological  disorders such as autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pervasive Disorder) Background Information-

Some experts consider autism a neurological disorder caused by a combination of genetics,

weakened immune systems  and childhood immunizations manufactured with a mercury preservative.

Heightened physical sensitivities are compounded by increased usage of pesticides

in food production.  In addition the Bush administration lifted the ban on genetically modified foods

without knowing the dangers . (Future of Food, 2007) These combined conditions have left our children

facing challenges of epidemic proportions, and our school systems with limited resources to meet the

growing demand of the increased population of special needs children.

Daily functional challenges can by hampered by emotional, physical, and medical conditions.

Outbursts can be triggered by the body’s inability to naturally detoxify.   In addition the absence of

beneficial bacteria in the digestive process can make normal body functions difficult.  In certain studies

active measles bacteria has been discovered in the intestinal lining.(Autism Gut Brain Disorder article)

All these conditions make good dietary practices and supplements of pro biotic, vitamins, and enzymes

crucial for maximum brain and body function. (Carthy, 2008)

Individual challenges of Autism

Sensory Perceptions challenges: 

These individuals are prone to sensory issues.  The overloading sensory messages can come from

smells, visual, tactile, and sounds.   Listening can often be challenging even though the person can hear

quite well.   The hypersensitivities can make following thought processes of the classroom more difficult.

Concrete thinkers:  People afflicted with this disorder are very literal in the thought processes.

Interpreting social cues as well as certain relationship interactions can be difficult for this thinking style.

Ideas can quickly be taken out of context.  They approach problem solving from the outside in. This

means that these unique individuals look at the whole problem and take random sections of the

problem and fix small portions of the issue until it is solved.  Linear thinking main stream class room

environments are exceptionally difficult.

Sensory Issues:   Sensory challenges can affect an individual’s ability to function within a mainstream

fast paced environment.  Hypersensitivities can exist in hearing, sight, or touch.  For example in certain

cases hypersensitive hearing conditions can exist where individuals lack the ability to filter through noise

and focus in on one sound.

Comprehension Delays:  Processing delays compounded with hypersensitive sensory issues to

sound or light can cause significant comprehension delays for people afflicted with this type of

neurological disorder.  A traditional linear thinking main stream classroom at times can be impossible

to manage without the benefit of a classroom assistant.

Concentration difficulties:   The delayed processing issues compounded by some of the above

listed challenges can make concentration difficulties over whelming.

Social Interaction difficulties – All the above listed challenges compound difficulties in

interacting with the people around them.  In main stream environments children, have a tendency to

shy away from the affected individuals.  Good planning by the classroom teacher is required to help

other children accept and appreciate differences. [1]

Learning Style:

Children and adults on the high end of the Autism Spectrum are considered most of the time Gestalt

Learners.  This is a right brain dominant individual who approaches problem solving from a holistic

perspective.   The right conditions needed involve visual, tactile, and auditory combinations for success

in the learning environment.

    “Theories of multiple intelligences,” was first introduced by Howard Gardner in the early

  1. This theory although controversial as it may seem to factor  more specific categories that

fit the different learning strengths of individuals on the Autism spectrum.  Some of the categories

included with in Gardner’s theory include:  Bodily –kinesthetic, naturalistic, visual/spatial and savant


The controversial aspect of Gardner’s theory is in how people are determined to fit into the learning

classifications.  A self scored test is administered to the classroom of learners to make

the determination of the relevant  intelligence category.  Opponents of this methodology feel this is

insufficient data to make an effective determination and is more based in intuition.

Bodily-kinesthetic:  The use of muscle memory and being actively engaged in the whole

environment of learning helps people on the Autism Spectrum.  This is also demonstrated by Temple

Grandin.  The Bodily-kinesthetic process of walking though the environment combined with

her visual processing perceptions make her the leader in this field.

Naturalistic:   People on the Autism Spectrum who think in pictures are more apt to notice the

slight weather changes to a certain region or forest ecological growth , and animal migration patterns.

This skill can be highly useful in forest restoration projects or supporting the preservation of animals

covered by the endangered species act.

Visual: This portion of the theory is widely criticized by many experts who dispute this

separation from math reasoning.  For individuals on and off the autism spectrum that begin the thought

process by detailed visual observation this concept does not require much explanation.   The visual

sensory 3D process of being able to run though the functioning of her slaughter house design but has

difficulty in number manipulation is proven by Temple Grandin.

Dr.  Temple Grandin is an associate professor at Colorado University.  She is a leader in understanding

of animal behaviors.  Do to her unique perspective and visual processing from Autism the redesign

revolution of more humane slaughter houses began.  She is also world renowned author and advocate

of issues on Autism.

Savant Syndrome:   Weak in Social Skills but remarkable abilities in other areas such as

photographic memory used to create art, ability to make new scientific discoveries.   Particularly gifted

in the spatial intelligence abilities with the ability for scientific application for a paradigm shift for

problem solving  abilities. (Wikipedia)

What are some teaching methodologies for people on the Autism Spectrum?

The teacher in a general education setting has many obstacles to help special needs children.

as well as guide the rest of the classroom in learning new concepts and inspiring them to understand

new challenges.    Teaching to multiple learning styles can  be difficult with the many different

cognitive abilities.  The accessibility of resource room teachers helps customize the learning for specific

learning  needs.

Cognitive functions give a person strong or weak learning abilities.  A cognitive processes involves   a

combination of sensory, reasoning, and memory thought process for the brain to understand new

learning concepts  or respond  to social interactions.  The physiological sensory components that help

gather  information are auditory, visual, tactile processing.  Sort term and long term

memory abilities, comprehension, and reasoning are the part of normal part of  brain processing


Small groups or one on one instruction have been found to be the most effective for teaching children

with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  There is also a strong need to eliminate the environmental triggers that

would overload the sensory issues so children can stay on topic.  That way the focus is on what the

children can do instead of what they can’t do.

Educational Kinesiology- is the study of movement as it relates to brain integration and the application

of the learning process. (Envisioning a Brighter Future pg 281)  This concept was first introduced by Dr

Paul Dennison.   He first became interested in how difficulty in movement correlated with  a

person’s  learning ability.  The 20 year of field of field observation resulted in the development of the

Educational  Kinesiology Theories’ .  Then he and his wife established Educational Kinesiology

Foundation  in Southern California.   He developed programs like Brain Gym and Pace that are used in

some main streams school today.

Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have repeated difficulties in different aspects of movement.  Any

performance art  that could activate an interest in Brain Gym type activities would strengthen physical

coordination.   Involvement in some type of performance art such as dance would support an interest in

physical movement.  This option might also take away any feelings of self conciseness.

Definition of Intelligence has grown substantially in today’s society.  The means of expressing learned

knowledge and understanding can be expressed in a multiple of ways.  Individuals such as Temple

Grandin has demonstrated remarkable abilities by being able to think outside the box.   This new

perceptive approach empowered Temple Grandin to revolutionize an entire industry as well as changed

our understanding of animal behaviors and communication.  In addition the understanding of thinking in

pictures and the ability though art of words helped us  as a society to understand the abilities behind the

label of Autism.

Why Art?

…. A human being is part of a whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space.  He experiences his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison…

Albert Einstein

Sometimes it is us as a society that has enclosed individuals with special needs in a prison of sorts or

an isolated island with a large mote in the middle of a large busy city.  Art is a tool or a bridge for

individuals with special needs to bridge the isolation, loneliness, and depression.  Art creates an

alternative language it is up to us to recognize the meaning it might hold.

Art is important for several reasons to individuals on the Autism Spectrum.  One of the more important

aspects stated  by the authors of self guided art therapy books is the ability to self direct the processing

of emotional events.  This self initiated desire and willingness opens the path way to free form thought

development.  These emerging independent thinking skills open the door to creative problem solving

skills.  The independent thinking skills begin to emerge though out the daily life processes.

The art of drawing is also an indirect way of communicating with the world around the individual.

Benefits of drawing alone can strengthen fine motor skills and concentration.  Drawing can also be a

method of discovering spatial awareness and texture.  These types of observations are observed

through the different patterns in Claire’s drawings.

What I have noticed is the need for Claire to first create picture art to tell a story and then writing

sentences to go along with the story underneath.  This demonstrated thought pattern process shows

her  ability  to understand  writing concepts  being taught in school but needing to add the drawing as

her step in describing her idea.  This process in story writing development is very visual thinking


Could a kind of picture art program be created to bridge the communication delays and sign language

is to individuals with hearing impairments.

In cases of extreme communication challenges the intervention skills that staff and parents try to

initiate can be loaded with frustration  for the child as well as the caretakers.   Parents and school

personnel for trying to see some understanding, forward progress, and growth to keep hope alive to find

a solution to unlock the barriers that hamper the potential for some  better quality of life.  It can be

frustrating for the child having the inability to reciprocate the communication and express feelings of

joy,  sadness ,or pain.

In the book,   “The Cure Within,” summarized the healing needs to start with individual.  One of the

main points of the book emphasis the individual need for validation, appreciation, and not being

isolated and art bridges the gap and strengthens the understanding.   The communication barriers often

associated with different developmental delays can be emotionally frustrating  and are often causes of

depression within the special needs community.   Art such as drawing can give all individuals the ability

to express  feelings ,  knowledge and understanding. The different art modalities of Classical,

Performance, and Craftsmen  can extend  and  strengthen skills of individuals with various

developmental challenges.  We as a society need to pay attention and validate this form of expression

and knowledge.

Classic Art– Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture support social emotional processing, strengthen fine

motor skills, and introduce basic math reasoning.  These activities also support stronger feelings of self

worth and give individual a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Performance Art – Dance and Martial Arts:  Education Kinesiology is a theory that is

supported by various types of dance movement.  School intervention activities with the occupational

therapist strengthens large and small motor function.      This interconnected activity strengthening

brain and body function will also in an indirect manner strengthen the school intervention on the speech


Puppetry:  In order for children with Autism to be successful learners they need to

be  taught to the specific learning styles of a partial cylindrical or fragmented holistic approach.  Also

needed for maximum success is a multisensory opportunity for  involvement for maximum

understanding to be successful.  Having children with Autism act out social situations could be open a

new level of understanding.

Craftsman Art – These activities support concentration, large and fine motor skill

coordination motor   coordination,  and basic math.  Craftsman art such as wood working and metal

smiting can introduce basic concepts ofl material science and structural design concepts.

Learning Summary:

I am a single parent of two wonderful, smart, beautiful daughters.  In some respects they have become

my greatest teachers about myself.   The fact that two sets of eyes are always watching my actions and

mimicking all that I do, has made me think twice about my actions in daily activities.   Since they have

been born the meaning of life has become so much   greater.  The meaning of being a parent has

brought a deeper meaning to  life is about.

Claire was diagnosed with Autism in Kindergarten.  It was evident that while she attended head start

that she stood out in her  unique approach to learning.  One of her favorite activities was studying  the

mechanical function of toys.  Group play for her was impossible.  Often because of differences the other

children were quite mean on the play ground physically and socially.  The individuals that were the

easiest to interact with for Claire were adults.  Her learning style is a combination of a cylindrical process

with a need for multi sensory interactive approach for the greatest success.

Since the four years of her diagnosis she has endured much adversity in trying to acquire the skills to

survive in a main stream environment.  The quality about her that I admire the most is she never quits

trying.  Often when she get off the bus the difficulty of the day is reflected in her inability to

interact and needing an extended time on the computer or watching DVD movies.

During the course of this project I saw some hesitancy in Claire trying new art projects even when the I

emphasized there are no rules.    I wondered sometimes if it was a lack of self belief in her abilities.  The

abstract collage project presented her greatest challenge.  She finished her project by wrapping it a blue

camouflage material and gluing it shut so little of the actual art was visual.

My younger daughter Linda is my five year old going on twenty five.  Her willingness to try new

activities is unending.  Her perfectionist approach to projects gave her finished results that she was

always  proud of.  She  loves to play and is reading already.  She has appointed herself the family

nurse.  The nursing profession has become one of her lifelong ambitions along with an interest in


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond

measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us.  We ask ourselves, “ Who am I to be brilliant,

gorgeous, talented and fabulous?  Actually who are you not to be?” Marianne Williamson…..

My goal as a parent is to help my girls live up to the above listed quote.  It is clear to me now that art is

a  method of enhancing my girls awareness of the authentic changing self.  A healthy balanced life needs

to include that time for creativity and reflection.  Art seems to be an indirect way of strengthening the

child’s individual voice.

It is clear early on in the project that I am just beginning to learn that my daughter is

instinctively using art to process the day to day experiences that are challenging.   Currently her art

methods of choice are drawing on printer paper and the paint shop program on the computer.  Claire

also has an intense fascination  with what goes into the movie making process.   This also has wakened

an interest in Photography.  Finding a easy to operate point and shoot needs to be a goal.  I did purchase

two  small point and shoot digital cameras.  Misplacing the program disk hampered the ability to down

load the pictures.  The camera was also inadequate for the girls to view pictures taken at the Seattle


The first involvement of using art therapy as a self initiated healing process was during the course of

this project .  The girls’ Great Grandma passed way at the beginning of the quarter.  This was the first

experience of death of a person they knew.    Most of the first few days were spent drawing

interspersed with moments of tears.  The pictures became the words that  they could not express.  The

drawings also showed me how they were processing the loss.  Though the transformation from person

to angel in all the pictures the constant was the smile of Great Grandma Helen

During the course of the project Claire was slow to warm up to try different art.   Linda my younger

daughter was eager to engage in new experiences and willing to jump in and try.  A significant

improvement in family quality time started to occur.  I needed to question myself as to whether this art

topic was something the girls wanted to explore or was it about my interest.

To introduce the sewing machine to the girls we took the team approach.  One operated the foot

pedal with the other feeding the material though the sewing machine foot.   Both girls participated in

cutting squares. The sewing project brought an intense interest for Claire.  With hearing protection on to

address the sound sensitivities she self initiated the process of trying to operating the machine and

sewing patches of materials together.

This type of project supports several different aspects of child development.   Fine motor skills are

Strengthened  in cutting and designing  project patterns.  This is also an interesting way to exercise hand

eye coordination.  This craft is also the very beginnings of mathematical reasoning, design theory as well

as space  awareness.  Kinesthetically children are also introduced to different textures and material


In Temple Grandin book, “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships,” she explains the social and

emotional aspects are two distinctively different aspects for processing of people on the Autism

Spectrum.   This emotional processing is what parents are faced to deal with when the children come

home out of sorts from a trying or stressful day.  When parents try to communicate these concerns to

the school they can be brushed away because the behavior is not witnessed by school intervention

specialist.  Unfortunately  the need for synthesis on the school and home front is desperately needed for

the greatest success of children.

The process of Art being introduced into the family evening routine as a self guided means for stress

release has a positive effect.  The time around the table working on project development opens the

door to communication of the day’s events.    This type of activity indirectly strengthens school learning,

creates greater self awareness, gives a finished project to be proud of, and gives an additional avenue

for self expression.   The act of holding a completed project gives children with various learning delays a

measurable accomplishment  that they can  see  over time.


During the course of this project I  met parents and professionals dealing with different aspects of

the Autism spectrum.

Professionals   showed a caring nature but had different motivations and interest.  The different

approaches to trying to assist the parent of these special needs children will achieve different long term

results.  One psychologist strongly believed in medication to achieve the desired  developmental

response from the  child.  This psychologist didn’t take in to account the environmental impacts and the

sensory  triggers and was strongly opposed to  Bio Medical interventions.  The other  psychologist was

willing to let the child be the guide to the world of Autism.  This approach  is more time consuming  but

the psychologist becomes a guide for the child  to help direct a   healing for  with in the child.

Art added into the daily lives of the families with special needs children would  be open up   to a type

of healing that transcends any challenges that may exist with day to day management challenges.   For

us , the time for making art was  a type of equalizer, ( in some aspects my 5 year old is exceeding the 8

year old and that becomes frustration on both ends) it gave my daughter something concrete to focus

on  that could include all of us and the difference and delays disappeared.  The developmental and

comprehension challenges disappeared.  We had fun.

Art also support an increased  chance for the desired development of neuro pathways in brain

development sited in the many interventions  used  by the schools intervention specialist.  This type of

program can be an invaluable tool by parents to cross support what the school  doing during times of

school   holidays.

Annotated Bibliography

The Rating is from (1) to (5) with one being the least useful and (5) being the most useful.

(5)  Malchiodi  Cathy A,  The Soul’s Palette,  Shambala  Publications Boston & London 2002

Author background information:  Advanced certifications in Expressive Therapies and Author of Several Books.

Book Summary:

This book is intended to give a lay person self guided direction on the benefits of creating art to help in reconnecting with the soul as well as emotional healing…   The authors supports this reasoning with documenting personal accounts on how she used art in her own life to process traumatic experiences such as 9/11….. She also  cites client cases on how art helped begin the healing process.  One of facts the author stresses is being guided by intuition.  This book helped me understand the best way to initiate Art Therapy is though a self guided intuitive process.

(5)  Harrington, Ann:   The Cure Within, a History of Mind Body Medicine.  W.W.  Norton & Company New York * London 2008

Author Background:  Professor at Harvard University, Department Chair of the History of Science.  This Author has written previous books on brain functions.

Book Summary:    This book is about the western evolvement of mind body medicine starting with scientific laboratory testing in the 1950’s to ending with an in-depth look at Buddhism meditative practices 2007.    The author cites scientific testing and laboratory approaches to studying the physiological approaches to stresses as well as large scale human survey’s and the results.  The author in the process of writing this book brings up several key points of the human needs to be connected to a larger sense of community and the initial skeptics of the scientific community of the validity of this approach.   This book helped me understand sometimes healing can come from inside by intuition.

(5)  Notbohm, Ellen:  Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Know.  Future Horizon Inc Texas 2005

Author Background:  Mother of Autistic Child. BA in Sociology, Published Author of other books on Autism, writer for Autism Ausbergers Digest.

Book Summary:  This book breaks down the 10 most common challenges that children with Autism face. This book explains to the adults on what often times gets missed over looked or actions that may get overlooked.  This booked helped put into word format the observations I had already been noticing and bridge the gap of understanding between the school district and the psychologist.

(5) MC Carthy Jenny:  Mother Warriors. Dutton Publishers 2008

Author Background:  Actress, Advocate, Author and Founder of Operation Rescue.  Strong Catalyst in Networking Autism Organizations and main streaming information on treatments of biomedical approaches to recovering children from the Autism Spectrum.

Book Summary:  Jenny McCarthy personal journey of helping her son overcome the challenges of autism and be healthy.   She openly discusses her own feeling of wrestling with the personal guilt over her sons Autism.   Interspersed with her own journey are also interviews done by her of people also with loved ones on the Autism Spectrum.  The detailed sometimes painful and sometimes joyful story of recovery stories are compassionately covered in pages of this book.  This book also documents in her own candid experiences in trying to get the word out on mainstream media and the positive results of Bio Medical Treatment options and Dietary changes that can help improve the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum.  This book helped me to understand and connect with other parents in similar situations.  Reading this book also helped me feel gratitude that the situation wasn’t worse.

(2) Education students with Mild Disabilities:  Love Publishing Company Denver Colorado 1998

Author Background:  None Editors on listed

This book isn’t really relevant to Autism.  This book focuses more on ADD and ADHD.  The writing style also takes a more traditional regimented scientific approach to classroom management that doesn’t leave room for much practical application to  unique individual needs of children.  This book wasn’t as helpful for the fact that it didn’t address Claire’s situation.  Also the cold clinical hard scientific approach left out the whole child.

(5) Lewis, Doorlang:  Teaching Special Students in a General Education Classroom Setting:   Prentice Hall 1999

This is Text book for General Education teacher.  The book includes differences between main stream and Inclusion.  Included in 5th edition of this book are updated federal regulations on special education.  References are also given to the challenges of special needs family and reservations they may have in involvement in the IEP process.  This book also gives ideas on how to teach children with special needs in a main stream classroom setting.  This book helped me understand the basic fundamental aspects of what the ideal classroom situation should be.

(5)  Lemer, Patricia Editior:   Envisioning a Brighter Future Intervention that Work for Children and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Optometric Extension Program Foundation.

This book is a collection of articles written by professionals in different aspects of intervention responses in the field of Autism.  This book covers many intervention techniques.  This book introduced me to many new types of treatments options.  In the aspects of this project the concept of Education Kinesiology..  It introduced me to a new understanding of the correlation between learning and neurological processing of environmental triggers.

(3) Pitts, Carl Editor:  Operant Conditioning in the classroom:   Crowell Company 1971

This book gives an introductory theoretical approach for behavior conditioning in and out of the classroom for teacher.  The  most interesting reading for me was Chapter 1 when the book raised the question, “What is intelligence and the criteria society measures that demonstration of unique expressive intelligence abilities.  The chapter also addresses the history of IQ testing and the pros and cons of such a system.

Internet Articles

(5) Article:  Current Education Systems: Helping or Hindering to our Childs Development, Internet Search

Author Background:  Michele Wolhuter is a Health Care Practitioner of 12 years and Instructor at The South African Institute of Cranial studies.  This individual has also done independent research of issues of children’s health care.

Article Summary:  Explanation of the brain functions of Gestalt Learners.  He gives a easy to understand explanation of the brain development and when right brain and left brains are typically supposed to develop.  This article for me brought up more questions than answers.  I didn’t want to get to side tracked from the project or art and how the brain function could possibly be engaged.

(5)Wikipedia:  Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardiner.

General Back Ground Information on the theory that Gardner developed that most effectively addresses the theory of the learning styles of People on the Autism Spectrum

(5)Carnahan, Christi, Shobana Musti-Rao, and Jody Bailey. “Promoting active engagement in small group learning experiences for students with autism and significant learning needs.(Report). .” Education & Treatment of Children.  32.1 (Feb 2009)

General Back Ground Information:  Over view article on the success rates for stimulation learning for children on different points on the Autism Spectrum.  The article gives suggestions on different options of incorporating music, visual cues, and interactive reading material.  Specific studies within the article are listed were significant improvements are cited for improvements are appropriately documented for supporting the theories of this article.  This article was helpful was very helpful because it accurately describes the various types of learners on the Autism Spectrum.


This article explains the basic concepts of cognitive learning styles.  It is also an introductory article for a learning support method that is available for parents.

[1] Ten Things Every Child with Autism wants you to know.


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