The Arts Adventures Program at VSA arts of New Mexico uses a multi-level and multi-disciplinary approach to teach a variety of arts, academic, and social skills to students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Not only does Arts Adventures provide enriching arts learning experiences to youth with ASD, but it also offers an important, hands-on training opportunity for university education students.
According to Arts Adventures Director Deborah Brink, most of their student participants with ASD have no art opportunities at their schools, but they “love art.” The Arts Adventures sessions offer a mix of visual arts, movement, and performing arts activities, tailored to the participants’ ages and needs. For instance, Brink says that for the youngest students, ages 7-10, “…we focus more on movement activities to support the need for these youngsters to be physically active. In art, we focus on projects that provide sensory exploration with materials, support the development of fine motor skills, and teach step-by-step directions and teamwork.” In this 7-10 age group, instructors allow a lot of leeway in how the project is executed.
Older Arts Adventures students receive more specific fine arts instruction. Brink says they have found many of their teenage participants to be natural cartoonists, so they have had success creating comics and zines. Performing arts activities have also proven impactful for the teens, developing their cooperation, collaboration, and public speaking skills. The students have created skits, game shows, films, and even a rock opera during their Arts Adventures engagement.
Brink says flexibility is a key to their success working with students with ASD. They typically offer two visual arts activities during an Arts Adventures session, located in separate spaces, so participants have choices. They also set up work stations so the students with ASD have an opportunity to move about.
Arts Adventures is also an Advanced Field Experience Site for the University of New Mexico College of Education (UNM). Arts Adventures provides UNM graduate and undergraduate students in-depth, hands-on experience working with both children with ASD and the program’s teaching artists and support staff.
The goal for the UNM students is to learn and ultimately use the variety of supports and approaches that Arts Adventures successfully employs for students with ASD. Brink cites written schedules and instructions, a variety of sensory supports, flexibility, patience, and a willingness to think outside the box as examples of the tools these education students gain.
The UNM students bring different levels of experience to Arts Adventures, including some who have had little arts training or minimal interaction with children. Others come with skills that they offer to share with the students with ASD. Brink says that this semester, they have a UNM student who brought his juggling equipment to an Arts Adventures session and taught the kids how to juggle, much to everyone’s delight.
Everyone works side-by-side making art at an Arts Adventures session, from the students with ASD to the UNM students to the VSA arts of New Mexico staff. “Communal art-making can be a real bridge to communication for these students with ASD,” says Brink, adding, “Many of the children have amazing imaginations.”