This blog contains a selection of excerpts chosen by author Jessica Woolhiser Stallings from chapter one of Special Interests in Art Therapy with Autistic People: A Neurodiversity-Positive Approach to Empower and Engage Participants.
These excerpts provide an overview of why I wrote this book and its potential impact for the field of art therapy:
Those who work with autistics on a more empathic level realize that perseveration is not simply mindless repetition without significance. What is said, drawn, sung or written often holds the key to the child’s salient concerns. One only need listen seriously and see in order to partake of their struggles (Henley, 1989, p. 53).
Nearly 20 years of clinical work, first as a behavioral therapy technician and currently as a professional art therapist and mental health counselor with individuals with autism, led me to explore these so-called “perseverations” or special interests and their potential role in art therapy. Throughout this time, it became apparent to me that popular culture cues were key to building relationships with autistic children and adults. My first experience was a preschooler who loved Veggie Tales. This child used household items like toothpaste and toothbrushes to act out their favorite of Larry’s Silly Songs- the “Cheeseburger Song” in the bathroom throughout the day. Such special interests or “perseverations” consist of intense fixation on something- for example “Cheeseburger Song” or a video game.
These special interests occur for many reasons which may include but are not limited to coping with anxiety or dealing with over or under stimulation with sensory input (Boyd, Conroy, Richmond Mancil, Nakoa, & Alter, 2007). In this child’s case, the interest provided me a window into their world, a way to build our relationship, leading to me singing along and using Veggie Tales as a way to capture and hold the child’s attention.
In my current work, I leverage these special interests to build rapport and to help identify and address treatment goals. In my experience, these interests are often derived from popular culture consumption. For the purposes of this book, popular culture refers to anything derived from entertainment media such as TV, YouTube, video games, books, comics/graphic novels, sports, toys, and other interests consumed frequently in the United States (and possibly beyond).
Note that in some areas, popular culture may include large churches and other spiritual subjects or objects. It is worth noting that everyone has special interests- a sports team, superheroes, anime, pets; although perseverations are cited as a symptom of autism because the intensity of autistic people’s interests is often higher than that of non-autistic folks, simply having special interests is a general human characteristic. In the pages of this book, you will find information on the benefits and drawbacks of these interests, as well as guidelines for how to work with these interests in an art therapy setting. Additionally, this book provides an overview of common approaches to therapy with autistic participants, problems with those approaches, and descriptions of autism positive approaches. This book culminates in a framework for an autism positive approach to art therapy based on popular culture special interests.
Why art therapy? Why this book?
At the time of this publication there is little exploration of the use of special interests to build therapeutic relationships with autistic participants. Popular culture and other special interests, which can appear to the uninformed witness as senseless fascinations, provide an opening for communication and relationship building. Engagement with participants in this way acknowledges that autism is a different way of thinking and interacting with the world and not an illness to be cured (Silberman, 2015), encouraging an autism positive approach to art therapy.
By its nature, art therapy places importance on metaphor and visual communication which makes it well suited to working with autistic participants. Neuroscientists Kana, Keller, Cherkassky, Minshew, and Just (2006) found that neurological connections in the occipital lobe were thicker in autistic individuals than in research participants without autism diagnoses, indicating heavy use of visual systems in the formers’ brains… The compatibility of visual and pattern thinking with the same properties in art therapy provide an argument for art therapy with autistic participants. It is necessary to re-examine common assumptions about the characteristics of individuals with autism, the effectiveness of existing therapies, and strategies for therapeutic alliance formation with these individuals in order to build a successful art therapy framework.
It is my hope that this book will encourage art therapists and other clinicians to work in neurodiversity positive ways with their participants. The pages of this book have been inspired by my clients but also reviewed and critiqued by neurodivergent adults as no therapy model should be created without feedback from those it affects most.
Special Interests in Art Therapy with Autistic People is now available! Click here to learn more.
Boyd, B. A., Conroy, M. A., Richmond Mancil, G., Nakao, T., & Alter, P. J. (2007). Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behavior of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37,1550–1561. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0286-8
Henley, D. R. (1989). Nadia revisited: A study into the nature of regression in the autistic savant syndrome. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 6(2), 43–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421656.1989.10758866
Kana, R. K., Keller, T. A., Cherkassky, V. L., Minshew, N. J., & Just, M. A. (2006). Sentence comprehension in autism: Thinking in pictures with decreased functional connectivity. Brain, 129,2484–2493. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awl164
Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. New York, NY: Avery.