Children with Autism Found to Benefit from Art Therapy

Children with Autism Found to Benefit from Art Therapy

Finding a way to treat those with autism spectrum disorder is of the utmost importance for researchers. This especially holds true when it comes to children. With this in mind, a researcher from Florida State University, Theresa Van Lith, began working with art therapists in order to reinvent guidelines to administering art therapy sessions to children with autism spectrum disorder. For more information, the study and its findings has been published recently in the journal Arts in Psychotherapy.

Children with autism

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 68 children, by only the age of eight years old, will diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The causes of autism are widely searched for, but rarely is any conclusive evidence found.

For parents with children who have autism spectrum disorder, finding treatment is integral. These parents, alongside the educators they trust to care for their children, are seeking out the most innovative ways to improve their children's social development and sensory issues. Recently, this has led to an increased demand for art therapists to help children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Leader of the study

Theresa Van Lith, PhD, is a professor from Melbourne, Australia. In 2013, she became an assistant professor of art therapy at Florida State University in the Department of Art Education. During her own education, she focused on the role of art in mental health recovery, leading to her inspiration to embark on this research path. Her work has been presented at many international conferences, both in the United States and Australia.

Dr. Van Lith has vast experience studying community and mental illness by working acutely on mental health facilities while using art therapy as a medium. She believes that this therapy has the ability to successfully act as a means of coping for those who suffer with mental health, and can lead to their recovery. She has run art workshops in the disability sector that focus on development of specialized skills, and exhibited her expertise by organizing, implementing, and evaluating therapy programs that utilize art, often even planning art exhibitions and retreats for the patients she studies. Moving forward, she wants to further progress by expanding her studies to the welfare sector and focusing on how her studies in art therapy can be applied to groups that are marginalized.

Co-authors of the study alongside Dr. Van Lith were Jessica Stallings and Chelsea Harris. Jessica Stallings is an associate professor at Emporia State University and Chelsea Harris is an alumna of Florida State University, practicing at the Emory Autism Center.

The study

Van Lith ran her study by surveying many art therapists who are in the process of treating children who have ASD through art therapy. She wanted to better understand the techniques and approaches these therapists are using, in order to collect data and test its effectiveness.

Via thorough discussion with the art therapists, they were able to compile and analyze their assessments on which of their theoretical approaches, objectives, and considerations in each session with their clients with ASD worked best.

Van Lith explains, "I had noticed that is there is a high number of art therapists working with people who have autism, but I wanted to understand what their practice wisdoms were in terms of how they go about facilitating art therapy sessions. We want to make it a transparent process for the client or the parents of a client, so they know what to expect."

She continues, "we realized there wasn't a consensus with the theoretical approaches they used. They were having to use a number of theoretical approaches together, and we wanted to understand what that would be like in practice." This is evident when examining the survey results, as they were extremely varied between the therapists that were interviewed. In response, the researchers decided it would be best do develop their own set of guidelines, using what others had proven to be effective, in order to standardize this care to children coping with ASD in the most effective way. These guidelines that the researchers produced will be disseminated within the art therapy community, and will act as a foundation for how art therapies can successfully deliver care, and also acts as a starting point for those doing further research into art therapy for children with ASD.

Van Lith explains why she believes this is the best approach, "we used these practice wisdoms from art therapists around the field to understand the most effective and beneficial way to use art therapy with a child with ASD."


So, what were these effective approaches, theories, and outlines that the researchers found in the study? The study reported that the best practices were to: utilize an identical routine on the outset of each session, be very verbal and clear when explaining instructions and expectations, be generally consistent throughout each session, pique children's curiosity to teach new skills, and to monitor transitions between activities, making sure the children are aware of them as to avoid confusion.

However, sometimes just as helpful in research is what information is ineffective or unhelpful, so the researchers also made specific notes of these answers in the surveys. They found that it is very possible that art therapists could in fact harm the chances of the children's progression they were attempting to create. These adverse effects often stemmed from the art therapist not being able to strike a balance between being too controlling or hands free, as the right amount of direction is integral to the children. Also, art therapists should stray from art materials that are too stimulating for the children. Finally, communication styles can alter the effectiveness of the therapy, making it important for the therapists not to force or be restrictive. Therefore, in the guidelines, "Do Not" information can be found instead of only "Do."

Understanding barriers

Van Lith explains why it's important to leave these techniques to trained professionals who understand what the guidelines of the therapy set out to avoid, as not to create adverse effects. She says, "that's important because sometimes there is the assumption of 'why can't anyone do these techniques?' People wonder why art therapy can't be conducted in a much less formal situation. However, they don't realize there are nuances in the way we deliver the art therapy directive -- a lot of that is about knowing the client and the way a client responds to communication."

Moving Forward

Van Lith is not stopping at this study; in fact, it has inspired her to continue. Based on the data she has collected and the guidelines she has created, her next study will test and demonstrate how effective utilizing her model will be.
Dr. Van Lith explains, "the idea is that, over time, we can build up the evidence that art therapy is effective for these children, and we can demonstrate how and why that is the case. As a result of more transparency, the clients can appreciate or understand some of the changes that might be going on for them as they receive art therapy. We don't want it to be a mysterious process."
Van Lith's work will continue to educate art therapists, as well as to spread knowledge of the power of art therapy in general.