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Art Therapy & Autism

Art Therapy & Autism

When we hear the words Autism Spectrum Disorder, we may call to mind a family member, friend or acquaintance we have met that has this lifelong condition. As the word spectrum implies a range, each person with Autism has different abilities and challenges than the next. You will meet no two people with Autism who are alike. The beauty of these differences I believe is captured in how the word spectrum was originally used to describe a band of colors as seen in a rainbow. Colorful, light-filled, different degrees of refraction and wavelength each creating a unique color. Each person with Autism is unique to the other, each having their own beauty and strengths that they shine into the world. The creative element of Art Therapy allows for flexibility in working with and accepting these differences.

What is Autism?

In short, Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, meaning it affects the brain which leads to different ways of socially interacting, communicating, behaving, and perceiving information. People with Autism have repetitive behaviors such as repeating phrases and body movements that are often soothing for feelings of nervousness or excitement. These behaviors can range from subtle, like rubbing two fingers together to quite obvious like jumping up and down. People with Autism are often known for their specific special interests or “affinities” for certain topics. For example, a fixation on and deep knowledge of certain TV shows, history topics, and animals to name a few.

How Can Art Therapy Benefit Individuals with Autism?

Art Therapy is a holistic approach to counseling for people with Autism. It can benefit those with Autism in the following areas:

  • Communication/Social Skills
  • Cognitive Skills
  • Sensory Processing

Communication Skills:

  • Build the client/therapist relationship in a non-threatening way

    • In Art Therapy, the rapport between client and therapist can be built in a non-threatening way. That’s because the art acts as a bridge and focal point that eases anxiety and limits the need to make direct eye contact. In Art Therapy, focusing on the artwork can reduce any nervousness brought on by eye contact which can, in turn, increase participation and encourage future interactions.

  • Express thoughts and feelings (especially for those with language difficulties)

    • In Art Therapy, words are not entirely relied on for self-expression. The pressure is off to try to find the “right” thing to say. The artwork can help emotions and experiences be shared that are difficult to articulate.

  • Find new ways to communicate and connect

    • One thing I love about working with individuals with Autism is finding out about their special interests. These interests provide ways to connect and build bridges of communication through discussion and through artwork. Research shows that when children with Autism are engaged in a discussion about their interests, the area of the brain associated with social functioning is activated.

Cognitive Skills:

  • Challenge the use of less literal thinking

    • Individuals with Autism are often literal and concrete thinkers which can be noticed in conversation as using blunt and straightforward speech. The use of metaphor in Art Therapy can challenge new ways of thinking.

  • Increase understanding of abstract social/emotional concepts

    • Stories are often used to help children remember concepts they are taught and apply them to situations in life. In Art Therapy, we can use this strategy to custom make comics or social stories to visually expand upon social nuances.

  • Solve problems visually

    • Some individuals with Autism are visual thinkers. A well-known and prominent scientist with Autism, Temple Grandin describes her ability to “think in pictures”. Art Therapy can build on these visual-spatial strengths to solve problems and learn new concepts through artwork.

Sensory Processing

  • Sensory integration

    • Some individuals with Autism can have sensory aversions to certain smells, tastes, sounds, and textures. The dislike for certain textures and touches is called tactile defensiveness. Sensory-based art-making can allow those with Autism to engage in creative expression with new materials and breakthrough some of these aversions in a fun and non-threatening way. However, it is also important to find out about a person’s aversions to certain materials in order to avoid unnecessary stress and sensory overload during an Art Therapy session.

  • Develop motor skills

    • An added benefit of Art Therapy is that it incorporates the use of fine-motor skills through the use of art materials. Sometimes children with Autism have delays in developing these skills. These are movements we use for doing things like writing our name or holding a fork, and throwing a ball.

What Does an Art Therapy Session Look Like for Someone with Autism?

Similar to a typical art therapy session, in a session with someone with Autism the Art Therapist will still consider unique needs and goals and tailor each session accordingly. Considerations are made for any sensory needs and material choices are offered. Special interests or “affinities” are invited into the artwork. Through Art Therapy, individual strengths are built upon to create a safe and comfortable environment for self-expression.


If you have more questions about Art Therapy and how it can be helpful for Autism, please feel free to contact me.


Ashley Hines Lunt, LPC, ATR-BC is a Connecticut Art Therapist as well as a Licensed Professional Counselor. She has been counseling kids, teens, and young adults on the Autism Spectrum for over 10 years.

955 South Main St Unit B201
Middletown, CT 06457

(203) 533-2351
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