Art and Autism

Nadia Shanab | autism, parenting, tips
26 Jun 2010

One of the world’s most famous contemporary artists is an autistic man named Stephen Wiltshire. He was mute in his early childhood and used to throw severe temper tantrums. He lived in his own world and never related to other human beings. At the age of three he was diagnosed with autism and he had no language. He went to Queensmill School in London at the age of five, a school for kids with special needs. At school everybody noticed that the only time he enjoyed was when he was drawing. His drawings could say more than just words. He communicated through his drawings. When his teachers noticed his amazing talent for drawing, they encouraged his mother to nurture this extraordinary strength and  give it more attention. His drawings are masterpieces in different subjects.

He grew up in a supportive and understanding environment that recognized his talent and pushed him to reach his full potential. Stephen earned a Foundation Degree at the Architectural Association in London in 1994. He also completed a three year degree course in drawing/painting at City& Guilds London Art College for a Postgraduate Degree in Prints and drawings in 1998.

That was just a short description of Stephen Wiltshire’s life summarized from his catalogue.

For more details about Stephen Wiltchire visit his website You can also view Stephen Wiltshire on You Tube.

Two years ago I was in London and went to visit his Gallery, but it had  just closed five minutes before I had arrived. But just by looking at the showcase windows I couldn’t believe the stunning quality of his art. It reflected his immense talent for drawing and his exceptional visual skills. He is privileged with a brilliant photographic memory. The care and support he received from family and school enabled him to utilize this gift to present his terrific art to the entire world.

This is a good opportunity to highlight the importance of communication between home and school as I mentioned in another article.
Working on strengths rather than weaknesses can change one’s destiny. Together, parents and educators need to dig and find the strengths in every child and build on it. Every child got a kind of strength in a certain area.

Art is a great means to channel the hidden energy  and talents in a constructive, educational way. Children with autism -as all children- should be given the opportunity to explore their interests and should be be exposed to as many kinds of art as possible. Some of them can express their interests, some can not. We need to help them find their passion.

Keep trying and never give up, if painting is not the right interest it might be clay, pottery, knitting, beading, ceramic,…

Vigotsky, the behaviorist, has a valuable theory. Adults shouldn’t offer help to the child while working on a task unless the child is really stuck and can’t go further. Only then, adults can step in and give the strict necessary amount of help needed to push one step forward. By doing this, we give the children the opportunity to explore and discover their own capabilities. This rules applies also on children with special needs. We don’t really know what they are capable of.
The ultimate goal is, to render them as independent as possible and help them recognize their strengths.

How to apply this theory?

  • Provide materials and supplies to the kids without giving directions first, and watch how the kids can make use of them. You’ll be surprised of their creativity. They can come up with a bunch of variations that nobody would have thought of.
  • On the other hand educators and parents can decide according to the child’s needs and capabilities when and how to offer the help. In standard teaching, the educator would demonstrate how the art project should be implemented, but again it is one person’s suggestion. For those who are less motivated to create or express their own imagination about the project, it is recommended to give them a structured help. By modeling and writing down steps, they will be able to follow directions and complete the project and thus enjoy the sense of achievement.
  • For low functioning children, you may do hand-over-hand to introduce a new art project. In a later stage withdraw gradually and let them try again.
  • The good thing about art is that there is no right and wrong; all techniques are welcomed. Since, every child is unique, art is an excellent way, to help the child feel appreciated for what she does. Celebrate the completion of their artwork and show them the importance of their achievements by giving it a place in the classroom or in a visible spot at home.

Community colleges offer valuable art classes for adults to teach art for young children.

Benefits of doing art

  • Art opens a window on your child’s mind. It is a great way to communicate. Let the child choose her favorite material and activity. Some prefer drawing others prefer painting or finger painting or coloring or making collage or doing pottery.
  • Performing arts is another area where children with special needs can express their thoughts and communicate. Singing, dancing,or playing an instrument has a huge impact on their cognitive development.
  • The exposure to different kinds of art and performing arts is very important in helping them learn more about their own capabilities.
  • Another advantage of doing art is introducing new materials that can work on some sensory issues. For example, touching clay can have a very calming effect.
  • Art helps develop the fine motor skills (the little muscles responsible for precise movements in the hands).Besides, art has a therapeutic effect.

Fortunately, art is one of the most popular activities on the school schedule. Most students with special needs seem to enjoy art.

Note: Remember that art can be messy. It is Okay to make a mess, and teach the child how to clean up her mess once she is done.

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