More about my Art Therapy Approach

My approach to Art Therapy comes from the position of a practicing artist informed by psychology. I respond to and design sessions according to individual interests and needs. Interpretation of work is similarly focused on client explanation and indications. The idea is to stimulate creativity and an associated curiosity for  experiencing things, which extends beyond making art to engaging with others and the external world. Engaging in creative play, in this case specifically visual art gives value to personal expression and encourages confidence in individual perceptions and observations building self worth. Within sessions I observe behaviour, social engagement and mood. 

Shared Art Activity

I have established my own practices which have been positively researched and the findings published. I developed my particular approach to art therapy through the process of my Masters thesis, arguing for shared activity between therapist and client (as a means of positive engagement) as distinct from a traditional observer/analyser role. This approach utilises my particular skills as an artist, that is the ability to quickly draw or make expressive and recognisable imagery and human forms. This is particularly relevant to helping autistic clients develop symbolic language and their emotional recognition and expression. This is not the most common approach to art therapy but one that is particularly suitable for autistic clients. It is an approach put forward in an art therapy book by Evans & Dubowski titled Art Therapy with Children on the Autistic Spectrum.

An in home service

My Art Therapy practice is an in home service. I supply art materials and go to the client’s home. This is suitable for clients on the autistic spectrum and their carers in that they don’t have to travel. People with autism are often very withdrawn and sensitive to input and change. Many will be more comfortable in their own surroundings. It also helps transfer art as an interest to practice with increasing independence. Many autistic people contextualise activities to an initial space and will not undertake an activity in another location (such as shifting the activity to the home if they are used to going to a therapist’s room). Conducting therapy in the home also means the parent/carer can become involved and learn to engage with the client in art activity outside therapy sessions which can also help establish art activity as a more independent interest. This form of therapy in the home involving family members has a tradition in counselling, called filial therapy. 

Part of the service for all clients (within the tradition of filial therapy) will involve setting up a suitable space with appropriate equipment for practicing art activities outside the therapy context. This is suitable as art activity can have a calming effect and clients can establish a self regulating practice and ongoing independent activity or interest at home and without always having the therapist present.

Drawing development

Children begin to draw at around 2 years of age. By this stage they have reached the following developmental milestones:

•the ability to focus visually and being able to understand and use vision.

•awareness and interest in colour, shapes, forms

•the ability to handle things

•some understanding of relationship between self and surrounding objects

•when they are no longer at the oral stage of exploring

•When they are aware of object permanence

•When they are able to contain liquids to some extent.

That is they can intentionally interact with substances as separate things in space, not as something that overwhelms them. They have some understanding and ability to interact with objects in space as opposed to being subjected to the experience. 

Art Therapy with children with developmental delay can help them to reach these developmental milestones. An Art Therapist uses art media in ways that directly address the needs of the individual and their stage of learning. 

Children with autism at various ages may have reached many of these milestones but are often overwhelmed by input due to hypersensitivities, perhaps combined with developmental delay. The experience of liquids such as paint can be frightening or cause the opposite reaction and overexcite.

In Art Therapy I often assist clients with autism to learn how to contain and control media such as paint. Learning how to control things in the environment can help the child with autism learn that they can interact with things in the external world rather than feel subjected to and overwhelmed by things. 

Developmental Art Therapy

Developmental art therapy is a used with children including those with physical and intellectual disability. It has a long history in art therapy. Developmental art therapy crosses with Occupational Therapy in some respects, for example in helping children develop functional grasp and develop hand grasp through the artistic process and handing of art media. Developmental art therapy also addresses cognitive development such as understanding cause and effect through mark making or through making impressions in media such as clay. At a more advanced level it can assist children in understanding the concept of representation.

Language and Trauma

Art is innate to humans and developed alongside early tool making and speech. Pictorial symbols were also used for many early written languages such as Egyptian iconography and are still the basis of many languages. In Western culture written language is phonetic, that is based on sounds of spoken language. Verbal language is now the dominant language in many cultures, including Western culture. 

Because verbal language is the dominant means of expression, it also more easily re-truamatises causing extreme fear and anxiety reactions of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).Expressing emotions through art uses a less familiar or alternative visual language which can enable a person dealing with trauma to reflect on experiences in a different way. In the controlled and safe space of art therapy this can be a way to assimilate traumatic memories without causing extreme stress reactions of PTSD that words, speech and thoughts more easily set off.

Fixated interests

Temple Grandin is a high functioning person with autism who writes and speaks about her experiences. In an interview (see link below) she talks about how people with autism often have "repetitive, fixated interests”. She continues to explain that these interests are often intense and that "we need to use these special interests to motivate school work.” She advises “If the kid like aeroplanes lets teach reading with aeroplanes, maths with aeroplanes.” 

I have found that engaging with the fixated interests of people with autism is also a way to motivate interest in social interaction and assist autistic people to be more accepting (and in fact begin to enjoy) change. In art therapy I encourage diversion from repetitive expressions in conversation and in artistic forms. 

I have worked with children who not only talk in monologue about their particular interests but also draw particular imagery exactly the same way every time. I saw one boy who also said exactly the same thing as he went through the same process in drawing his image of a train. 

Through social interaction people are exposed to new ideas and different perspectives. Similarly, in the shared space of art therapy, the therapist can work with the client to expand ideas and shift repetitive representations into variations of the form. Through sharing his interest in both conversation and my own art works the boy interested in trains was inspired to draw trains going through tunnels, over bridges, trains with people inside and trains with different animals in each carriage. One week, without any input from me, he drew a birthday party on a train with people on the platform bringing presents and a cake. Inside one present he drew a tiny train. The following week he independently drew the fruit and vegetable display at the supermarket. 

By engaging with an autistic persons interests, monologues can shift into dialogue. In art therapy this occurs in both conversation and visual expression. Engaging with these intense interests gives the person with autism positive experiences on how interacting with another person can increase their interest and of the inspiration that comes from expanding ideas and change.


See Temple Grandin interview at:

Michael was a 16 year old client who was verbally articulate but prone to meltdowns in which he could become aggressive. Art therapy was clearly a calming activity for him. On one occasion, while painting a typically colourful abstract, he stated that it had been a bad day and it became clear that he had had an earlier breakdown. He added "It is not easy being mean". I immediately responded, holding back amusement, that Kermit the frog had said that "It is not easy being green". This led to a discussion that Kermit couldn't help being green and that he couldn't change his colour whereas it was possible to try not to be mean. I told him about ways to calm himself including deep breathing and advised him on ways to be aware of his emotions. In the space of art therapy Michael often articulated his feelings and recent issues. While his focus was on painting it was possible to address these issues without the conversation been too confrontational. This was often because while he continued painting I would talk to him about issues, without making eye contact and without it being the main focus of the activity.

Art space

Working with art materials focuses your vision on the space of the page or from the eye to the hands. The surrounding colours, shapes and movement shifts out of focus and to a certain extent sounds also retreat. I think this is partly why art activities are often so relaxing for people on the autism spectrum. It engages them in the moment in things within the immediate surroundings. When clients are absorbed in the art process they often stop making repeated sounds or movements which function to block out overwhelming input.

Art Therapy as an alternative to verbal expression

The history of art therapy is intertwined with that of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, particularly in the history of Child psychotherapy from the beginnings in the early 20th century.

Art therapy is well recognised as a way to express feelings and emotions that are too painful or difficult to express through language. It is particularly suitable for treating clients who have experienced trauma where language can often re traumatise. 

People of all ages and varying counselling needs can use art therapy and find it helps access thoughts and feelings that are difficult to articulate in words. 

Children often express themselves more clearly to adults through drawings. After September 11 many art therapists came to New York to counsel those affected in the city. Through drawings children clearly conveyed their interpretations and fears so that counsellors could directly address individual needs.

About my Art Therapy Approach

Art therapy has a foundation in psychology. It addresses emotional and developmental needs through the combination of the art activity and therapy relationship. The perspective of my practise focuses on self-expression and the immediate shared space. 

Sessions are designed to allow for freedom of expression but also, to either moderate  or expand responses. For some clients, visual expression is more accessible than language or assists with verbal expression.

The process can be the focus within art therapy as certain art media and /or media handling can stimulate a particular emotional response. Working a large block of clay or drawing heavily with pastels or pencils can be calming by providing an outlet for tension or physical energy.

Inspiring interest and the curiosity to discover and learn is also central to my practice. For many clients becoming comfortable in another’s presence and able to engage with things in the immediate space is significant in developing forms of social interaction and way of coping with the social environment. 

Visual representation assists learning in relation to language and communication as both words and visual images are symbols for real objects. Recognition of imagery and forms of representation underlies concepts of language, communication and the visual signs that make up our environment. 

I design appropriate activities for clients that encourage development such as fine and gross motor skills, hand and eye co ordination. Young clients can acquire understanding of concepts such as object permanence, cause and effect and recognition of forms of representation through art.

Silent interaction

I believe it is important that non autistic people and parents meet people on the autism spectrum half way at times. That may include balancing teaching and the encouragement of verbal communication with allowing for silence creating experiences non verbal interaction and shared activity. 

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of being around adults while they silently continued with what they were doing whether it was cooking, gardening or carpentry. It was a lovely form of company. Animals also just about their usual business with young in tow.  

With clients with autism in art therapy I sometimes work alongside the client in silence and forms of non verbal interaction often develop. The client may watch what I am doing or begin to tap brush marks creating a rhythm with my mark making. On occasions clients have made marks on my work beginning a visual dialogue within a collaborative art process. At other times there is an exchange of materials or the client tries out a colour I have just mixed.

In silence the autistic client is often more receptive to allowing me to work hand over hand which I do to vary their response and teach new skills. Talking while working hand over hand by comparison is often too overwhelming. I have also found that people with autism respond more comfortably and immediately to instructions when they are given silently through gesture or the use of sign language.

What does it mean to be a registered Art Therapist?

In Australia only certain Arts Therapy courses qualify for registration with the Australian New Zealand Art Therapy Association (ANZATA). ANZATA registration meets International standards of art therapy training. ANZATA registered art therapists have a Masters degree in both Psychology and an arts specialty (art, drama, music or dance). Students enrolled in approved Masters art therapy courses also have to complete an extensive number of placement hours to qualify for the degree. An registered art therapist uses the initials AThR after their qualifications to indicate that they are professional members of ANZATA.


Clay is a fantastic material to work with. It has a cool, earthy feel and is more resistant than play dough. When shaped it holds its form. The resistance of clay makes it a great outlet for stress, anxiety and anger. Use large quantities to involve more physical exertion. Handling clay also helps develop hand strength. 

When you have finished with clay work it back into a block, Bang it onto a table repeatedly to get out any air bubbles that will cause it to dry up. Put a hole in it with your thumb and fill hole with water and seal over. Wrap in 2 layers of plastic and it can be re-used.  

Clay is not really messy. You can wipe it off surfaces with water. You may need to wipe it a few times with clean water to get rid of it completely but it doesn't take long. When it dries it just turns to powder that can be swept or vacuumed.

Buy White Stoneware clay. It only costs around $10 for a large slab.

Visual Sensitivity 2

I had a client, Sam who would paint big strokes in red and yellow. He would stop and look at the contrasting colours, cover his eyes and turn away. He then painted over the colours with white or blue until he had mixed colours he could tolerate. Then he would build up the painting with other colours he liked. 

In doing this he was sort of playing with his visual sensitivity and by painting into the strokes he was altering or taking control over visual input. Art therapy is often beneficial as a means of engaging with the world and it's input. This includes learning how to interact and change things, which makes people feel more in control. From infancy children gradually learn how to interact with, coordinate and control things both internally (with toileting) and externally (holding liquids, eating, fingerprinting then using a brush).  

For individuals on the autism spectrum external input is often frightening and painful. It is experienced as something imposed and inundating. Learning that you can moderate and change things helps encourage interaction with the world against the tendency to withdraw and block out by making repetitive movements or sounds. 

Visual Sensitivity

Visual sensitivity is common to individuals on the autism spectrum and extends beyond bright lights and the clearly overloaded visuals of the supermarket to general clutter, bright colours and movement. I am often surprised that many special school classrooms are set up with students facing each other sitting around a central table. It is often done to encourage social interaction. However when you think about it, most neuro-typical people need private space to work. Communal offices are generally set up with cubicles or at least a computer screen for privacy leaving the central table arrangement for the lunch room and meetings. 

I find individuals on the autism spectrum are much more focused and calmer when seated facing a blank wall for table top tasks without the clutter and distraction of other objects, the visual intrusion of colours and pictures or the surrounding movement and activity of others in the space. Individuals with autism often have feeding issues and sitting against a wall also helps them relax and concentrate on eating and makes feeding a child much easier.