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Conor is 14 years old and we have been making things together since he was eight. Conor’s mom hoped art therapy might help Conor to be more self-expressive and more connected.
Art therapy is typically utilized with people for whom words or traditional modes of communication are difficult for a variety of psychological, social, and developmental reasons. It’s a creative process within a therapeutic relationship. This “mediated” process helps people to resolve problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, foster self-awareness, and achieve insight.
Over the years, Conor has demonstrated a strong preference for work with ceramic clay and other sculptural materials. He also likes creating with traditional and non-traditional materials such as cardboard boxes and popsicle sticks. Conor makes functional pieces and pieces that showcase his passion for detailed, highly ordered environments.
Art therapy with Conor has resulted in increased verbalization and narrative related to his ideas, desires, and finished creations. The shared creative process has also provided opportunities for problem solving and practicing skills around being flexible; having to cope, at times, with what is possible. We work as a team. We often explore his elaborate ideas and consider options, both in terms of the scale of the project and the materials that may provide the best “fit.” We make plans and adjust plans as we move forward at his pace and with fidelity to his vision. Conor has created a host of functional ceramics for his home, table centerpieces for family dinners, and models representing beloved places in the community, such as the airport, the mall, and the bowling alley.
I encourage parents considering art therapy to expose their child to a wide variety of creative materials, including non-traditional materials, and observe the level of interest. Look for any social behaviors that are elicited by the offering: simple requests, efforts at joint attention or tolerance of the shared experience, vocalizations or physical reactions that might indicate pleasure, and sustained attention to exploration, to name a few. Allow the creative process and social responses to be your guiding forces. Artistic talent is not a prerequisite for an individual seeking or being referred for art therapy services.
In seeking an art therapist to join and enhance this burgeoning interest, parents should seek a professionally trained art therapist, identified by the credentials, ATR-BC. In some states, including my home state of Maryland, art therapists may also be licensed as such, providing additional quality assurance to families. In effective treatment, an art therapist will thoughtfully synthesize a deep knowledge of art media and processes with training in psychology and counseling theories to identify methods that might best meet an individual’s needs.
I am happy to talk further with families about art therapy and facilitate their finding art therapists in their areas. Alternatively, families are encouraged to visit the Maryland Art Therapy Association website www.marylandata.org or the American Art Therapy Association www.arttherapy.org for more information. In response to the growing need for individuals with autism and other intellectual disabilities to have access to creative, meaningful, supported work opportunities, I helped co-found Make Studio Art Program in Baltimore in 2010. I encourage viewers to visit www.make-studio.org for more information on how art is also providing avenues for joyful self-expression, income generating employment, and improved access to the community for adults with disabilities.
-Cathy Goucher ATR-BC, LCPC, LCPAT
Licensed Clinical Professional Art Therapist and Co-founder of Make Studio
Editors note: Conor’s mom writes about family, life in general, and autism. Check out Alisa Rock’s blog rockautismexperience.com