Enhancing Well-Being and Happiness for People on the Autism Spectrum Through Fine Arts
The fine arts are a wonderful outlet for self-exploration, creativity and self-expression. They are another channel for communication, showing us a window into a person’s world. Experiences in the arts play a valuable role in helping a person to participate fully in the community and in society as a whole. They provide enrichment in life and can be an excellent teaching tool.
Introducing the arts into the education and life experience of am autistic person can be daunting if you have not had any training in the fine arts. Don’t be afraid because music, visual arts, literature, dance, photography, film and drama can foster a sense of well being and happiness, adding to the quality of life of an autistic person. There are lots of materials, resources, instructional videos and websites to help you.
Fostering a love of the arts and making them feel familiar gives a person on the spectrum a lifelong activity and pursuit. The arts are like a good friend – always there when you need them and something you can go to in those down or lonely moments.
Where Do I Start?
All fine arts activities should have structure to them. To just give paints and say, “make a picture” may be too overwhelming. You may have to give some ideas of what to paint and then break the task down. Help them to see the parts of an object or subject of a scene and how it comes together to make up the whole. For example, our adult daughter takes a weekly community art class. We have to prepare ahead of time what things she might paint because she finds it very stressful to have to come up with an idea once she gets to the class. We send books and objects that she is interested in and loves for her to paint.
Plan out an art project with a child and then gather the materials together. This will make a child feel that they have some control over choosing materials, colours etc.
Know what the sensory difficulties are. If a child hates getting their hands dirty or wet, finger-painting will not be a good choice. If they have an auditory sensitivity, playing a drum may not work or it may work wearing noise cancelling headphones.
For art projects, break down each step of the project through visuals and have those steps listed in sequence. Assist the child, but don’t lead. Sometimes hand-over-hand can help the child at first until they can do the project themselves. Don’t overwhelm a child with a project and keep an eye out for frustration. Start with simple ideas and build from there as skills increase.
What Can I Do with Music?
There is a great deal that can be taught using music. Use certain songs to cue association with tasks. For example, choose a song that you can use for transitioning to another activity. Play it every time you move to something new and an association with that song will happen with that transition. You can pick songs for cleaning up, end of day, lunchtime and the list goes on. Experiment with all kinds of music to see what appeals the most. You Tube is a huge source for music, especially classical. Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are great composers to start with. For Mozart, have a look at Symphony #40 in g minor, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and any of the Bach Preludes and Fugues. Scarlatti is also wonderful. Vivaldi is also great, mathematically precise music.
For academics, try and follow a story like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. This has both the spoken word with music. For math, grab a pair of claves and tap out 2 (2 taps) and say plus 3 (3 taps) and ask the person what does it equal – they can tap back 5 times. Get the individual playing simple rhythm instruments like claves, finger cymbals, triangle, tambourine or a hand drum. Does your school have a music program? Are there Orff instruments about or ones you can get on loan from a school board? Get a hold of a xylophone. This is a simple instrument to learn to play and it develops hand-eye coordination. Explore patterning and memory with a xylophone. Play a simple tune and have the person play it back. Create rhythmic patterns for playback.
If you are not a musician and need more guidance in music, consider contacting the Canadian Association of Music Therapy. Most provinces have their own association and you can find them through this website. Their links section lists other music therapy associations worldwide.
Drama can be a wonderful way to teach social skills, learn how to express emotions, improve communication and teach cooperation. Conversation skills and vocal production can be practiced through the dramatic arts. Check out Drama for Autism to find some lesson plans on how and what to teach.
We got our daughter involved in puppetry after we took a family trip to Los Angeles, CA to see the Muppets live at the Hollywood Bowl. It changed her life and sparked an interest in becoming a puppeteer. She takes a private lesson twice a month which has improved her vocal clarity as she tends to mumble when she speaks to other people. When she has a puppet on her hand, she speaks clearly and with confidence. She loves to sing with the puppets too.
There are times in the day when a person needs a break. This can be the perfect time to access the arts. My son meditates every Monday for one hour to classical music. He also uses classical music in his yoga practice. He enjoys reading literature aloud. He began this practice by listening to an audio book and following along with the book in his hand. My son now reads aloud for about 3 hours a day.
Making a collage of favorite pictures can be a nice way to think about an interest and be creative. Save old calendars and magazines that can be cut up for projects. If your child is interested in photography, they can photograph things they like, print the photos, then organize them into books or posters.
Branching Out Into the Community
There are many ways to experience the arts out in the community. Local churches and libraries often offer free concerts. Universities and colleges have student recitals. Most symphony orchestras have open rehearsals several times a year when members of the public can attend. Museums and art galleries have a free evening once a week or once a month.
Plays, operas and ballets have dress rehearsals. Ask the organization that is hosting the event if you can attend the dress rehearsal. These are usually free or charge a nominal fee. You may also be able to get “rush” tickets an hour before an event starts. We’ve been doing this for the symphony and getting $25 tickets rather than paying $90.
Many arts organizations now offer “relaxed” performances which means they don’t mind fidgeting, movement, or vocalization. The lights may be turned up and the sound turned down. Xenia Concerts offer high quality music and arts performances, presentations, and educational programs, in an environment that welcomes those who might not have access to such events and activities due to physical, mental, or financial barriers. Movie theatres are offering sensory friendly screenings.
The fine arts are becoming more accessible than ever before with lots of opportunities to participate for free or for a nominal fee. The arts should be as much a part of life as physical activity.
For more ideas on how to incorporate or access the arts for autistic individuals, have a look at these resources:
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