Five Tips for Designing Art Education for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Charles A. Van Zee M.Ed.

Students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) present the challenge of having an incredibly wide variance in abilities across multiple dimensions. Students may have deficits in communication, sensory processing, fine motor control, social skills, and mental flexibility. When planning an art program for children with ASD, educators need to create projects that are equally accessible to all students, regardless of where they fall on the autism spectrum.

  1. Improvise to work around deficits in motor control. Deficits in fine motor control and hand-eye coordination are extremely common in children with ASD. When I teach children ranging in age from 5–13 years the basics of Kiln-Fused Glass art, most required motor control accommodations. When developing the curriculum for these classes, this aspect proved to be the biggest hurdle. Many of the tools I work with in my glass studio require a great deal of manual dexterity or hand strength. I planned my lessons with this in mind, doing the fine cutting myself and grinding the sharp edges off the glass so no one would cut themselves. I replaced my small, precise tools with larger, more common objects; spoons, rulers, and yarn were utilized. Clear nail polish replaced superglue. I had to completely re-envision the way I create my art in order to adapt to my audience.
  1. Engineer the environment. Children with ASD have many needs that go beyond the physical. Issues as minor as the lighting of the room, the feel of a chair, the smell of an air-freshener, or a radio playing in the background could turn a pleasant learning experience into an arduous task. Social and communication deficits can destroy group dynamics, and auditory processing delays can mean your clearly worded instructions are not understood. Engineering the environment means that any adverse effects a child might experience due to the physical location of the class must be addressed in advance. The rosters for each session of the class must also be chosen carefully so one student’s sensitivities does not set another’s off. For instance, don’t put the student that never keeps their hands to themselves with students who cannot stand to be touched. Planning for these issues in advance can change the entire tone of the class.
  1. Incorporate the tactile (and let them get dirty!). All kids love to touch things and explore the world with their senses. This is especially true for children with ASD. They don’t simply want to see the art; they want to experience it with every sense. While we generally can’t let students taste our materials, touching them is a great way to get more connected with the project. One of the reasons children love working with glass is because they can touch it all. They can feel the cold, smooth base layer of glass. They can stick their hands in the sandy frit, or roll the little chunky pebbles of coarse frit between their fingers. If you plan activities that let the kids get their hands dirty, and let them feel what they’re doing, they’ll be more into it than if just their eyes and ears are engaged.
  1. Let them be creative, unique, and original. Children with ASD have a tendency to be very rigid with their thinking. One of the biggest benefits to art education is the fostering of creativity, originality, and the ability to take one’s visions and bring them to life. In order for this process to take place, you have to let go a little and let the students do their thing. Pre-fabricated, step-by-step projects defeat the purpose of art education. Try to design art projects like writing prompts in a creative writing assignment. Give the students the tools, a basic idea of what they should be aiming for, teach them a few techniques, and then let them create.
  1. Let them show off! Children with ASD are often intelligent, sensitive, and painfully aware that they are being treated differently. It is important to foster healthy self-esteem and self-worth in every student, and letting them showcase their artistic talents gives them a chance to shine. Give students a chance to display their work to the community, answer questions, and get attention for their efforts. “Showing off” doesn’t have to be anything as grand as an art exhibition. Plan projects that they’ll want to keep, or give to someone they love as a gift. Also, a simple art blog or photo album lets students know that what they made is special.
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