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The role of Arts Therapies in young people with Autism

By Lucy Collings Pettit, Neurologic Music Therapist, Chroma

For young people with an autism spectrum condition, the arts therapies (music therapy, art therapy and dramatherapy) can play a significant role in enabling them to express themselves.

In the earlier years, arts therapists will often focus on working with the core characteristics of the child’s condition, for example social communication, interaction and imagination. This can involve group therapy input in the school setting, with this type of intervention encouraging important social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, waiting and listening, and positive peer relationships. In working on an individual basis, an arts therapist will typically focus on a child’s non-verbal communication; this might involve intensive interaction and play-based interactions.

There tends to be a pattern of need for young people with autism. As children get older, and adolescence sets in, pupils tend to start requiring more specialist therapy input in direct response to the emotional needs that often emerge at this time—typically, this might be a result of increased levels of change and transition—on educational, physical, social and emotional levels—leading to higher levels of anxiety and often limited means through which to express and manage their feelings in a positive way due to characteristics of their condition.

Teenagers in general experience innumerable mood swings during puberty and young people with an autism spectrum condition are no exception—except they struggle further to express their emotions and, as a result, frustrations tend to grow and incidences of aggressive behaviour towards themselves or others may increase.

This is where music therapy, art therapy and drama therapy can be implemented as accessible and valuable forms of psychological therapy. With so many emotions to explore and express, it is important to help young people to regulate their emotions and to be able to co-regulate in a safe space.

All arts therapies serve to help young people express, explore and better manage their emotions, allowing them to process their thoughts, feelings, experiences and relationships—effectively, providing them with a voice and a means of working in a therapy context—often in the absence of words.

Different mediums can be used to help a young person with autism express themselves— such as image making, painting and role play. It is about using different art forms to enable young people to express themselves effectively, helping them to relieve their frustrations and anxieties, and make sense of how they are feeling. Importantly, this is achieved within the safety of a therapeutic relationship—with a highly trained arts therapist.

Techniques that worked in the early years may not be suitable in adolescence, therefore interventions must be age-appropriate to be effective. The use of songwriting in music therapy is a great way to help young people structure feelings and make sense of the world around them, including their peers and relationships with others. It can also be a helpful way of addressing transitions during adolescence.

Other young people may respond positively in art therapy sessions while some find expressing themselves through role play or small world play better helps them express and gain insight into their emotions. Arts therapists will always strive to adopt the best intervention for each individual child to help support their mental wellbeing effectively. It is all about the individual child. Arts therapies are always person-centred; whether in group or individual therapy, every child can benefit from a tailored therapy experience.