“A picture can paint a thousand words and bla bla bla…”, have you ever actually tried drawing your words or your feelings (what the hell are those?), without it turning into a fruit bowel or Van Gogh sunflower? It is a tough task for anyone, let alone an emotionally stunted Aspie. Yet it could be the very thing to unlock that door which has been shutting you off from the world, if you can get over your personal boundaries and perfectionism that is.
As I discussed in a previous blog post “Therapy for Aspergers”, to date I have had a string of hilariously bad therapists and counsellors, my first four months of Art Therapy were to be no different. Our first session began with an exercise in ‘communicating with art’, basically she drew a squiggly line or shape and I responded to that on the same piece of paper, or at least that was the theory. Straight away I felt very exposed and would simple try and get my squiggly line as far away from hers as possible, whilst she continued to invade my metaphorical space and perfect patterns with her colour clashing unruly marks. My squiggly lines and shapes developed into lightening strikes and rain clouds; a war had begun.
I spent the next four months a closed book, drawing safe images of the solar system, weather elements and moths/butterflies/birds/anything-with-wings in flight. All derived from pictures or television programs I’d seen that week, all had very simple emotional explanations; the solar system revealing my loneliness, the weather my inner turmoil, the flying as being free. I was studying Psychology at the time, I was ahead of the game! Everything had to be drawn correctly; I couldn’t tolerate anything that didn’t look exactly how I’d imagined it. This wasn’t therapy it was an art class, except I was the only one attending it!
Finally, thanks to the formidable perseverance and patience on the art therapist in question, I got tired of hiding my feelings and worrying about my art and just let it all out (as much as possible for an Aspie, which in neurotypical terms equates to a few tears and admitting you’re feeling sad, then freaking out that you’ve lost control). I finally started to connect the two: drawing and feeling. Once I got the hang of it, it became, and still is, a vital tool in helping me manage my thoughts and feelings. As I wrote in a previous blog post “The Creatively Impaired Autism Fallacy”, It made me realise that not everything has to have a point to it, that just in the act of creating something disorganised and irrelevant it would untie a lot of the knots in my head, and that in itself gave it a purpose.
So that is my experience, but how does Art Therapy work in broader terms for those on the autism spectrum? The research is somewhat sketchy, the benefits are hard to quantify, not least because artistic types are not known for their statistical prowess, and unlike structured therapies like Cognitive Behvaioural Therapy, Art therapy is adapted around the client’s needs; or as my art therapist likes to call it, “Bespoke Therapy” – not the sort you can make self-help leaflets on.
In general terms it is based on the belief that ‘the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.’ For those with autism this can aid the processing of memories, recording images and visual information and expressing ideas, which can become quite overwhelming and lead to meltdowns.
Individuals with autism seem to have incredibly good visual skills but struggle with verbal communication. This can often make tradition psychotherapy a no go, but Art Therapy a great alternative. It has been reported by art therapists that children able to engage in one-on-one sessions start to show an improved ability to imagine and think symbolically, more insight into others facial expressions and a new ability to manage sensory issues. Art seems to give these children (and some adults) a means to make a bond with another person, skills which can be transferred beyond the therapy room, and in some cases it has revealed remarkable artistic talents.
Going into therapy for the first time, or after a bad therapy experience, can be a scary prospect. It is important to find someone who has experience working with individuals on the autistic spectrum, and is able to adapt their work around your needs. If you are not quite ready then start your therapy at home on your own, just start drawing and creating. It isn’t about whether or not you enjoy art or are naturally creative; the idea is to create something tangible to remove those overwhelming thoughts from your head and sort through them. A bit like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, pretend your paint brush is actually a wand and the experience will me much more enjoyable (*not guaranteed, Harry Potter atheists and agnostics excluded).
In her book “Safety Skills for Asperger Women”, Autism advocate Liane Holliday Willey discusses how she found externalising her emotions by creating something extremely cathartic. As someone who wasn’t a natural artist she used photos from magazines to create a montage of her feelings and possible resolutions; this was also my chosen method of expression in my first art therapy sessions too, and helped me ease myself into the creative process.
For more information:
“Drawing Autism” is a collection of artwork by individuals with autism coupled with interviews of the artists, with a forward by Temple Grandin. More information on the book can be found here: http://markbattypublisher.com/books/drawing-autism/