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Art and Autism: A Look at How the Arts Help People with Autism

While therapists and researchers have developed numerous types of treatments and best practices for helping individuals with autism to better overcome difficulties with sociability and communication, the arts provide an undefined but reliable source of therapy that can take on a variety of different forms. To better understand how different art forms—ranging from painting to movies to everything in between—can help children and adults with autism, we take a look at several recent examples of how the arts can have a positive effect.

One art form that has been utilized by a teacher in Washington is theatre. Julie Schroeder, a former hairstylist from Richland, Washington, is set to be awarded at the end of this month for her five years of work of helping kids with autism enjoy the freedom of acting in live theater through the area’s Specturm on Stage program, which she founded in 2010.


The theory that inspired Schroeder to start the program was the belief that drama sessions can help develop communication, social interaction, and imagination skills for kids with autism. Teaching autistic kids improvisation techniques encourages them to creatively engage with the environment and each other, both physically and verbally.


Meanwhile, in Columbia, Missouri a team of educators has found success in treating children with autism through the power of painting and other art mediums. The treatment has proven so effective that a group of students with autism has recently worked to found the Arts for Autism program at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Participants in the program are encouraged to explore their creativity through painting, ceramics, and other mediums and then have the option to either keep the art works for themselves or put them up for donation to support the center.

Connie Brooks, a psychologist at the Thompson Center, said exercising creative talent helps kids with communication problems express themselves. Unlike talking, art needs no words or gestures.


Finally, a recent story has been making the rounds demonstrating the power of movie characters in engaging children with autism. Owen Suskind was a three-year old child who went from being lively and talkative to closed off and non-communicative as the symptoms of autism became more pronounced. As the symptoms worsened, Owen’s parents noticed he was becoming more and more obsessed with animated Disney movies and feared that he was losing his sense of self in them.


However, it was ultimately the Disney characters that provided his parents with an entryway into his world, as was recently chronicled in an article by his father Ron entitled “Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney” that was published in the New York Times. Owen’s parents were able to use stuffed animals of Disney characters, such as the parrot Iago from Aladdin to ask Owen how he was doing. While Owen would not respond when his parents asked such questions, when speaking to Iago, Owen was able to articulate his frustration over his inability to communicate with others.


As his parent Ron puts it, using the Disney characters was like “reversing the telescope” as it gave him and his wife a means by which to engage with and help their son to develop his communication skills. Owen was then able to work with a therapist through his favorite Disney characters and ultimately learned how to stand up for other children with autism.  He is now 23 years old and attends a special school in Cape Cod where he is the president of the Disney Club, which he also founded.


While each of the above stories details a particular situation in which the arts was able to help individuals to overcome difficulties with communication and social interaction, they illustrate in general just how powerful the arts can be in helping to treat children with autism.