The Benefits Of Art

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Educating Autism – Art and Creativity to Engage an Autistic Child in the Classroom

October 16, 2013

by Claire Draycot

Educating autistic children can seem like a challenge. Indeed, it is often hard enough to educate children without ASD, but to engage and maintain the attention of a child with autism when trying to teach them about something in which they have no interest can seem, at times, nigh on impossible. Kids with ASD may require very specialized teaching methods in order to combat sensory issues, difficulties in focusing on things which have no real interest for them, communication problems, and possibly attention deficiency. These problems may lead many to believe that the child is stupid or unskilled, and a lack of socially interactive skills on the part of the autistic child does nothing to help this illusion. The perception is that children who cannot get along with school cannot get along in the real world. As everyone who has witnessed the wonderful work of The Art of Autism know, this perception is entirely unfair. Autistic children are not unskilled – it is merely that their skills manifest in different ways to those of other children, and they are often not easily induced to demonstrate them. This can be frustrating for parents who want to ensure that their child gets the best possible education and best possible start in life. However, a little patience, understanding, and creativity when it comes to education can work wonders. The use of art as a teaching tool can have unparalleled effects in opening up an avenue of communication between student and teacher, and in engaging the interest of the pupil.

Physical and emotional benefits

Art lessons have benefits both practical and emotional. Some young autistic children may struggle with their fine motor skills, for which the simple act of guiding crayons over paper can render a huge improvement. However, as well as honing their motor skills, making drawings allows autistic children to communicate thoughts and feelings they may otherwise struggle to express. Viewing a child’s drawing opens a window into interests, preoccupations and emotions which may go unregarded in a child with ASD, who does not communicate these things in a conventional manner. This can provide the teacher with a greater understanding of the child, which is of enormous benefit when it comes to teaching them.

Painting is a fun activity for Molly

Painting is a fun activity for Molly

Adaptation and control

Many autistic children struggle in conventional classrooms because the methods utilized do not suit their own particular way of doing things. The idea of adapting their personal methods can be upsetting. Art gives them a degree of control over their learning experience which many greatly appreciate. A child shown a map and told the names of the countries on it may become bored or frustrated, let their attention wander, or simply refuse to participate in the lesson. A child asked to draw their own map, and make it as accurate as possible, immediately has much more control over their learning experience. They are more likely to become engaged in the task, actively seeking out the information they need on their own terms. Crucially, they are able to conduct themselves in a manner which they prefer while at the same time taking in essential information. Furthermore, the tangible end of a drawing assignment provides a sense of focus which may be lacking in other lesson formats – the ultimate end of gaining knowledge being nebulous and non-immediate.

Defining boundaries

Visual aids are often very useful for those teaching austistic children. Those who provide resources for the teaching of autistic children recommend the use of visual aids to help clarify concepts which may be confusing for someone with ASD. Autistic children are less likely than other children to meekly accept the word of their teacher when the reasoning behind an action or concept seems incomprehensible. Visual aids help to illustrate these concepts, making them seem instantly much more reasonable. This principle can be carried through into the classroom as well. TEACCH – a specialized system of teaching autistic pupils – recommend the use of a highly visually defined teaching area to help children get into a ‘learning’ mindset, and to make it perfectly clear that one cannot act in this space as one would act at home. Many autistic children appreciate clear boundaries and definitions, and there is no more effective way of defining a boundary than through clear visual markers.

Musical engagement

People with ASD can respond in surprising ways to creative teaching methods. Music, in particular, has been found to elicit amazing responses from children with ASD. Many autistic children respond far more enthusiastically to a lesson framed musically or rhythmically than they would to a more conventional lesson. Some ASD children like the patterns and rhythms of music or chants, and these can benefit from, for example, math lessons phrased in rhyme, or chanted. Others like the opportunity music gives for them to engage with others through clearly defined parameters. Making music or singing a song with the rest of the class gives the autistic child a part to play which is predictable and easy to complete yet simultaneously creative, expressive, and inclusive. Making them feel included is one of the greatest ways a teacher can ensure that the mind of an autistic pupil is ‘in the moment’, so to speak, that their attention is on the lesson and, crucially, that they are enjoying the lesson. See the Art of Autism story on the importance of music by Jacqui Callis.

Molly drumming at Hidden Wings

Molly drumming at Hidden Wings

Learning through personal expression

Creative methods of teaching can thus provide an unparalleled way of communicating and engaging with autistic pupils. Framing lessons which may otherwise seem dull or pointless within a creative context lends a sense of focus to a lesson, and gives the child a measure of control over their learning experience which helps to ease frustrations and make their education more enjoyable. This will allow them to develop their skills, and to demonstrate to their peers that, although they may not engage with lessons in quite the same way as others, they are in no way intellectually deficient!


The Hero Of Portland

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Charles Turner, who replaced the stolen iPad. 

A 10-year-old autistic boy who relies on an iPad to communicate had heartbreak quickly turn to happiness last week due to the generous good deed of a fellow Portland, Oregon resident.

The boy, Corbin Murr, who sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around, had his custom-app–packed iPad stolen off his chair last week while he was up and about, playing with his older cousin and caregiver, James Freeman, at a local playground.

More on Yahoo!: Innovative Ways the Autism Community Uses iPads

“I felt really bad, you know, because that is his world,” Freeman explained in a local KGW TV news story about the theft. “That’s his toy he communicates [with], it’s always glued to his hand, he doesn’t like sharing it with other people, and it just keeps him in his own calmness.”

Luckily, Portlander Charles Turner was watching the news that night. The real estate agent and father of one was so moved by the report that, after a quick discussion with his wife Jenny and their understanding 6-year-old son, he decided to donate one of the family’s three iPads to Murr.

“For me, an iPad is largely a toy and occasionally a business convenience,” Turner told Yahoo! Shine. “To Corbin, it’s a thing of comfort, and a communication tool.”

Corbin with his mom, Gillian. 

Turner then contacted the news station and was put in touch with the boy’s mom, Gillian, who was thrilled to have a replacement for the tablet, a new one of which would have cost her upwards of $399. Luckily, Corbin was able to sync the new machine from Turner with computer downloads of his apps, some of which cost as much as $50 each.

For many severely autistic individuals like Corbin, iPad apps — like those including AAC Speech Buddy, Articulate It!, MetaTouch, and Scene and Heard, according to the website Autism Speaks — can be life-changing communication tools.

Unfortunately, stories about the modern lifelines being stolen from children with autism are not uncommon: In January, a 12-year-old Virginia boy’s iPad was stolen and eventually recovered, although a special communication app that took his family more than a year to customize had been deleted. In Rhode Island in 2012, an 8-year-old girl got lost for several hours, turning up unharmed but robbed of her special iPad; the story so tugged on a pair of local police officers’ heartstrings that they bought her a new one. Similar tales of theft and loss have been reported in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Manatee County, Florida; and Tampa, Florida in the past year.

Corbin, at least, was one of those whose story had a happy ending. “He’s been getting very good at [using the apps], being able to communicate his needs when he’s thirsty, when he’s hungry, when he wants a certain toy, saying ‘I love you, Mom,’” a very grateful Gillian told KGW. “So it’s a really big thing for him.” Yahoo! Shine was unable to reach Gillian Monday for further comment.

In an interesting twist, Turner, who is an ambassador with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, found out through meeting with the Murrs that Corbin has been granted a July family trip to San Diego from the foundation. Because Corbin is unable to fly, they’ll be making the journey by car. “And an iPad,” Turner noted, “figures in heavily for a 17-hour-plus drive.”

Communication As An Artform

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A painting done by Sesobel children. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The sounds of children playing reverberated from almost every room at Sesobel, a school for children with disabilities.

At one point, a 13-year-old boy torpedoed into the play area on a bicycle and boisterously announced “I’m Gregory!” holding out his hand to a newcomer. Before the latter had the chance to return the introduction, the vivacious teenager had already lost interest and sped away on his three-wheeler.

“He’s one of the artists,” Mugay Moudawar, a specialized teacher at the school, turned to tell The Daily Star.

By most accounts Gregory’s behavior deviates from the norm of basic social interaction. However, an impaired ability to communicate is one of the hallmarks of autism, which often tests the patience of parents, therapists and sometimes, the specialized teachers at Sesobel.

While autistic children tend to perform poorly with basic verbal communication tasks, they often excel in visual and spatial tests. Through the special education program at Sesobel, autistic children are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings through painting classes.

“These children are unable to [verbally] communicate their desires to other people,” explained Moudawar, “So in school at times they draw on the board what they feel, their fears, sorrows and joys. … These are all captured in the paintings.”

The finished products have not only granted parents and teachers a glimpse into their complex inner worlds, but now the general public can have this opportunity too as a collection of the children’s paintings are on display at the Phoenicia Hotel.

“We were the first school in Lebanon that dared to start a special program for autistic children,” said Sesobel’s President Fadia Safi, “because it’s very challenging, because every child with autism is unique.”

In 1989, after witnessing the trials of the mothers that were largely left without adequate resources to raise their autistic children, the school began a special education program for the preschool level. As the children grew into youths and then young adults, the school’s board realized it not only needed to build on the program, but construct another center to house its activities.

The proceeds collected from a silent auction of the children’s paintings will contribute to building this center.

“Autistic children and youth are real artists and they make really beautiful paintings, which will help them acquire the funds to build their new center,” Safi said.

As with many spectrum disorders, autism manifests through a triad of symptoms that include impaired social interactions and communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, such as head slapping and hand flapping, compulsive behavior and an obstinate and at times volatile resistance to change.

Most children show symptoms of the disorder before they reach 3 years of age. Neurologically, autism affects how information in the brain is processed, but how exactly this occurs is not entirely understood by scientists.

Depending on the gravity of the disorder, some who are mildly afflicted are able to integrate with society and even enjoy successful careers, but for moderate to severe cases of autism, most cannot live independently.

Given the challenges of having to engage with severely autistic children – let alone teach them how to communicate – the special education program at Sesobel adopts an adaptable approach that makes use of each child’s particular propensities, often by stimulating his or her heightened visual processing capabilities.

The teachers at Sesobel begin giving instruction around the preschool level. “We have to focus our efforts in improving their ability to express their needs, so we begin with actual objects,” said Moudawar.

To teach a child how to express thirst, for instance, Moudawar will place a glass of water on the table and, using gestures accompanied with simple language, will instruct the autistic child to show her the object whenever in need of a drink.

“In time we move on from objects to photos of the objects, then words that correspond to them … so the tasks become more and more complicated,” the teacher explained.

Because of the typical communicative barriers of the disorder, instructors said they have to be able to empathize with a child to understand their needs.

“A child with autism needs to feel secure at all times, because he is terrified of change,” Moudawar said, adding that this fear can be incited by simple habitual adjustments, from being instructed to stand up from a seated position to simple changes in the season.

“He needs to be prepared well before a change in his routine will occur. If he isn’t prepared in advance he will have an outburst.”

Sometimes these outbursts are resolved easily, once Moudawar explains what gave rise to the change with drawings. For instance, Moudawar recounts a time when a child once threw a fit because the teacher that normally handed out chocolate after a lesson was absent.

“So I took a piece of chalk and explained to him ‘Listen, the teacher is not here today, she is sleeping and the key to the chocolate box is with her,’ and I drew the key and put an ‘x’ through it, and he understood,” she said. Without this visual explanation, the outburst would have continued.

The upstairs room where the children sometimes spend hours on a single canvas shows signs of their furious creativity: A white table is splattered with paint in the art room, as are the chairs, walls and the floor. Piles of canvas are strewn on the ground along with brushes stiffened with remnants of acrylic paint, their tips thinned with overuse.

The hours the children spend on a single canvas is a rare investment, as most are unable concentrate for long in other activities.

On display in the room is a bright-red medium-sized painting of a geranium that itself contains a darker flower. On the right-hand corner is the signature, “Walid.” Only the large and wobbly handwriting gives away the artist’s young age.

Gregory’s subdued and intricate paintings, one of the many on display at the Phoenicia Hotel’s exhibition, show no sign of the energetic boy that had burst through the playground earlier. The discordant arrangement of colors in his work “Ulysses 1,” for instance, suggests an emotionally complicated inner world.

The children at times paint dark colors in a very narrow spaces on the canvas to express their anger, which sometimes leads to interventions from the supervisors.

“But sometimes they would invade the space of the canvas, with all kinds of colors. And that’s how we saw their joy,” said Moudawar.

Telehealth As A Tool For Kids With Autism

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Keeping an autistic child focused is not the easiest task. It can be even more complicated in a busy doctor’s office where there are often distractions like puzzles, games and televisions. But thanks to telehealth, what used to be a distraction can now be a tool for kids with autism to connect with their doctors.

“Imagine having a hyperactive child with a high sensory issue,” said Dr. Kristen Sohl, the medical director at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Trying to talk to a distracted parent about daily habits and examine a child while the child is being a child can be difficult for both the physician and the parent.”

“It seems that when they see me on the TV and they see me talking to them on the TV, they become so fascinated and I am able to keep their attention and give the proper diagnosis because they are talking to the TV,” Sohl said.

The Thompson Center offers a range of health, educational and behavioral services in one location for individuals with autism and other developmental concerns. Parents of children with autism who live far from the Center can teleconference with doctors instead.

Telehealth treatment is all about the patient,” said Sohl. “What we do is all patient-centeredness and not doctor-centeredness… We ensure that we talk and discuss every aspect of life. We leave nothing out.”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that one out of every 110 children is autistic.  Autism has no known cause – or cure.  Signs of autism include impaired social interactions, delayed communication skills, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Parents who notice these signs are advised to contact their child’s pediatrician and seek referral for a screening. Early therapy and interventions has been known to bring about substantial improvement.

“We have had patients who knew of our services from other states and would have to travel hundreds of miles across the state just to get the specialized care that their child needed,” said Sohl. “Because of the hyperactivity of their child the ride was so stressful and unsafe. We offered them the telehealth services though they were from another state and they moved within the county just to receive the care that their child needed.”

Hello Twitter… Or, The Usefulness Of Social Media

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Computer class went really well tonight; at first, as usual, Mike was his usual hesitant self about going to class.  But like most things, he warmed up quickly.  I didn’t know what was in store for him and the rest of the class tonight; he just started 2 weeks ago, but had no class last week due to Easter break.  That first class they taught the class about sending emails, adding contacts to their address books, and initiate/respond to/participate in chats with those contacts.  The class is primarily taught by 2 college-age girls, who are supervised by someone from the Nassau County PAL Special Needs Unit.  The class is made up of teens with different developmental disabilities; of those kids, Mike knows one other boy, also named Mike, who lives in the same town and attends the same Special Needs video game club offered by the town library.

This week was quite a surprise; I thought they would be using their iPads, which Mike can navigate with ease.  But as I sat outside in the computer lounge a notification came across my phone telling me that Mike was now on Twitter.  After I confirmed that it was in fact him, I thought about this for a moment.


Most parents, if strapped into a polygraph machine (AKA lie detector) probably would prefer that their kids stay off social media if at all possible.  For kids with Autism, I think the opposite is true, at least for me.  Knowing that the majority of Autistic children have some form of communication issue, any new way for them to communicate with their peers and friends is definite step in the right direction.  I don’t believe for a moment that Mike will suddenly become tethered to his Twitter feed, or post his latest Instagram pics of his favorite meals, but on the other hand, it would surprise me either; unlocking that next new thing is something that parents on the Spectrum are always seeking for their children.  Let’s face it; Twitter is a language all its own.  If a child with Autism can communicate via tweets, in a social platform, who’s to say what he can or can’t do?  It is not a coincidence that Autistics are drawn to technology; here is an instance of how that attraction begins, and hopefully allows them to flourish among their peers, and within society.

I didn’t sit in class next to him this week, like I did in week 1.  After class, I asked him how it went.  Mike told me he asked his friend Mike to sit next to him in class today.  He said he talked to him about his favorite movie and about video games, but not much else.

Communication.  It’s a start.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch as it develops.

By the way, here’s a shot of Mike’s first tweet:


The Value of the Human Voice

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I wanted to re-post this because the message is so strong, and resonates among parents on the Spectrum.  A word, a sound, a look or a touch is all it takes for us to connect with our children; to understand them and help them develop their full potential.

“Human beings are hard-wired with the impulses to share our ideas and the desire to know we’ve been heard. It’s all part of our need of community. That’s why we’re constantly sending out signals and signs. It’s why we look for them from other people. We’re always waiting for messages; hoping for a connection. And if we haven’t received a message, it doesn’t always mean it hasn’t been sent to us. Sometimes, it means we haven’t been listening hard enough. In spite of all our communication technology, no invention is as effective as the sound of the human voice. When we hear the human voice, we instinctively want to listen in the hopes of understanding it. Even when the speaker is searching for the right words to say. Even when all we hear is yelling or crying or singing. That’s because the human voice resonates differently from anything else in the world. That’s why we can hear a singer’s voice over the sound of a full orchestra. We will always hear that singer no matter what else surrounds it…” Jake Bohm. Touch Ep.4