art supplies surrounding a paper pennant flag that says "art therapy for children with autism"

Art Therapy for Children with Autism: Connecting through Creativity to Build Resiliency

A diagnosis of autism brings joys, challenges, and anxieties. You see your child’s amazing strengths. You marvel at their unique talents. Your child is incredible! Yet you worry about the areas where they struggle.

In difficult moments you are your child’s advocate, defender, cheerleader, and helper. But you can’t always be there. What happens when your child faces a challenge alone?

At Resourceful Me Art Therapy, I use the creative process to connect with children with autism so that we can work together to build resiliency.

Through art and play, we practice skills and create tools for your child’s tool kit, their metaphorical “pocket knife for life,” so that they can feel confident and competent when facing challenges.

watercolor painting of puzzle pieces

Art therapy can be a great fit for children with autism because:

  • It naturally involves non-verbal expression and communication
  • Talking is not necessary for connection or communication
  • Eye contact is not required or expected
  • Participation doesn’t depend on cognitive functioning
  • Art materials encourage rich sensory experiences
  • Art based activities allow children with autism to learn new things in unconventional, non-verbal, expressive and comprehensive ways (D’Amico & Lalonde, 2017)
  • The basis of art therapy is acceptance and non-judgement, so your child can be exactly who they are when they come to a session
  • Because art therapy is process-based, there’s some flexibility in the way we do things. We can find ways to incorporate your child’s interests (or obsessions!), which helps to get their buy in
photo of pencil crayons
Photo by Markus Spiske

In my experience, kids with autism often like art therapy! Much of their world is very structured, which is essential for safety and success, but within safe boundaries they can experience a bit more freedom during art therapy. They often respond positively to the one-on-one support of the therapist who pays special attention to their emotional experience. They are offered some choice in how or what we do if appropriate, which means that they often have fun during sessions.

When children are interested in what we are doing, they are more open to learning. This is a different environment than what they may typically encounter. Experiencing enjoyment in the context of a relationship helps to build the child’s confidence and self esteem, leading to increased independence. My clients with autism often leave feeling a little bit better about themselves, and excited about the skills they are building. 

close up of childs hands holding pencil crayon
Photo by Alexander Dummer

While my personal experience has shown me that art therapy can be an excellent support for kids with autism, research in the field of art therapy also provides evidence of potential benefits.

According to recent studies (listed at the end of this post), art therapy can help children with autism to:

  • experience connection in the therapeutic relationship
  • become more expressive
  • develop social skills, especially cooperation and collaboration
  • increase flexibility and decrease rigidity
  • move beyond stereotypical behaviours
  • increase sensory regulation
  • build confidence in their skills
  • experience relaxation
  • learn how to talk about their problems
  • develop executive functioning skills
  • build self esteem
  • increase verbal and non-verbal communication skills

The most exciting finding, in my opinion, is that these improvements seen during art therapy sessions transfer beyond therapy to other environments like home and school.

Research clearly reflects the many potential positive outcomes and benefits of art therapy for kids with autism. I feel that art therapy is a perfect fit, because the flexibility of a process-based therapy means that the possibilities to connect are as diverse as children with autism.

aerial view of paint palate and paint brushes
Photo by Steve Johnson

I absolutely love working with kids on the autism spectrum. I also have a brain that works differently. As a child I was identified as gifted and placed in special education. I know what it’s like to feel different at the core of my being. I have first-hand experience with the joys and challenges it can bring. I find that this often helps me to meet my neurodiverse clients exactly where they are at, and then think creatively about how to support their needs.

Woman holding letter board that says "My brain works differently. I'm embracing what that means."
Self acceptance is an ongoing journey for me!

My approach to therapy is playful, client-centered, and strengths-based. I believe that your child is absolutely amazing, and that they have what it takes to overcome the challenges they are facing. It would be my honour to join your child’s support team.

I can do this by providing individual art therapy sessions for your child, consultation and feedback for you, and collaboration with your support team. I imagine that there are already several important professionals involved in your family’s life, and I believe that children thrive when everyone is on the same page and working together. With your permission, I can connect with your child’s Occupational Therapist, Educational Assistant, or ABA/IBI therapist to make sure that my work complements their treatment goals and approaches.

To find out more, call or email to book your free introductory meeting! I look forward to connecting with you.

You can also come meet me at the 3rd Annual Autism Speaks Canada Orangeville Walk on Sunday September 8, 2019. I will be hanging out with my art supplies in the Children’s Area of the CONNECT FAIR. Come say hello and decorate a personalized flag to wave as you walk to raise awareness about autism! Click here for all the details about the event.

Promotional poster for ASC Canada Orangeville Walk 2019


Miranda D’Amico & Corinne Lalonde (2017) The Effectiveness of Art Therapy for Teaching Social Skills to Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder, Art Therapy, 34:4, 176-182, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2017.1384678

Huma Durrani (2019): A Case for Art Therapy as a Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, Art Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2019.1609326

Celine Schweizer, Marinus Spreen & Erik J. Knorth (2017) Exploring What Works in Art Therapy With Children With Autism: Tacit Knowledge of Art Therapists, Art Therapy, 34:4, 183-191, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2017.1392760

(If you would like to read these articles I am happy to send you a copy!)

Written by: Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT

pinterest graphic with photo of pennant flag and art supplies, and title of blog post

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Why I Write A Blog – Resourceful Me Art Therapy
January 10, 2021 at 11:12 am

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