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Autism, art and the classroom

In this article, specialist SEN teacher Claire Tottle discusses her experiences of teaching art to autistic children. Claire shares her ideas for art lessons and gives some practical advice on different approaches to art making. 

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Author: Claire Tottle

Autism, art and the classroom

With the right approach, in my opinion all children on the autistic spectrum can benefit from art activities. My experience of teaching art to autistic pupils has shown me this. In the art room many will find a sense of calm, inspiration and sensory fulfilment.

In the early days of working with a pupil, it is important to observe their attitudes and reactions and let this knowledge inform your subsequent lessons. Sometimes the best approach is to offer a range of materials for the pupil to choose from, giving control back to them. Many autistic pupils struggle with the unpredictable nature of art so having a clear lesson theme or objective is reassuring as the loose creative process is framed and given some containment.

Non-verbal autistic children can often communicate through art. For these children, making art can be a key to their inner thoughts and a way for others to get to know them. Eventually, art could help such a child find their voice. The young American artist Iris Grace Halmshall was non-verbal until aged 6 years old when her parents offered her paints and paper. She took up a brush and painted for hours, her work similar to Monet. She now paints regularly and seems happier because she is communicating. She has achieved worldwide success with her art, any profits funding her speech therapy.

Sometimes pupils are more interested in the part of an item rather than a whole. An observational drawing exercise is good for these artists. Focus on drawing the very interesting parts of a bicycle. Display by collecting all drawings together to recreate a whole bike. 

Art is a way of building social skills. Pupils can be encouraged to work together on a joint piece of art, scaffolded by an adult. 

Art can be a welcome distraction when talking to pupils that are usually reluctant to reveal much of themselves. A gentle discussion about the art in progress often leads to an insight that would not be otherwise gleaned. Usually I work alongside the pupils, producing my own composition so that everyone is working at the same level. 

Pamela Ullman, an art therapist, has created a useful autistic art powerpoint. This can be found on Pinterest. She tells what the selection of certain art materials reveals about a pupil's character or mood. Pencil and pens show a need for control, crayons an organised mind, paint is an emotional choice and clay or collage is chosen by a confident artist. Ullmann lists what is needed for a successful autistic art lesson: have structured sessions, goals established, modelling of behaviours, rewards systems and praise.

For many autistic pupils eye contact is difficult, reading the emotions and feelings of others a challenge. Portrait work can help this. Begin by looking at a selection of portraits, discuss how the people could be feeling, (the teacher might have to feed a lot into this discussion). Look at portraits where the emotion is obvious: for example a smile, asking: What makes you feel like this? Talk about anger and sadness too, if appropriate, emotions like shyness or excitement may be too complex for some pupils to read. Children then look at their own faces in mirrors, practising making faces. Begin to create a self-portrait in pencil or pen so that the focus is on the content not the technique. It is interesting to see whether the portrait shows emotion and, if so, which one. This exercise is good for teenage pupils coping with hormonal change and the linked emotional impact.

Another approach to teaching portraits is to focus on drawing the face correctly. Encourage pupils to look at a variety of portraits, pointing out how the facial features are symmetrically balanced. Ask all to look at their own face in a mirror, then draw it using pen, if possible adding labels to show their observations about eye colour, shape of face, etc. At the end of the lesson, collect all portraits together and ask pupils to find similarities and differences between facial features. This could be a way of helping children to connect with each other.

Teaching art to autistic children is an inspiring, sometimes surprising, experience. Of course, amazing autistic art can be viewed online. From a 6 year old artist creating paintings of famous landmarks with tyres, to the carefully planned numerically driven compositions of Jessica Park, it's all there. Enjoy.

Date added: 18 January 2016