Art Therapy: What exactly is it + how can it benefit ASD kids?

We’re very fortunate to be connected with a wide variety of talented and passionate practitioners and nature-based businesses on the Sunshine Coast to help build a community and team of caring professionals here to help local families. One such practitioner we’ve known for about a year who we first met when she brought her boys along to our classes and later saw them at a friend of theirs’ Primal Kids Party Clint provided entertainment for, is one we want to share with our tribe about because her particular modality is quite unknown in the ASD community and one that can be highly beneficial to pretty much every family with young ones on the spectrum.

Sally Cuthbert is a qualified and experienced Art Therapist based in Buderim here on the Sunshine Coast. When you hear the words ‘art therapy’ images of art classes at school and college might pop into your mind, of even the ‘paint & sip’ classes so popular with women these days for socialising. Neither are what Art Therapy is about!

So we invited Sally to be a guest on our blog to properly explain what this unique and beneficial therapy is…

Q :: What makes art therapy unique and different to other modalities?

A :: Art therapy is an enjoyable, inclusive form of therapy that’s suitable for people of all ages and abilities. It is a form of psychotherapy that uses art as its primary mode of communication. Ability in art isn’t important, nor do I interpret what people make. Art therapy is not just a collection of techniques, but is rather a planned intervention which attempts to create a safe environment for the client to express him or herself using art.

The focus is on the shared process of making, image or object, which allows for the relationship to develop in a comfortable, gentle way. It can feel less threatening than sitting face to face. Sometimes words alone don’t seem to be enough but words and images together can more accurately convey what you want to say and can be processed with the therapist. Sometimes, there can be too many words and they can get in the way of being able to be in touch with emotions. Art can bring insight or a new sense of ourselves which is especially helpful during times of difficulty. 

I like this description from Cathy Malchiodi:

“Art therapy is based on the idea that the creative process of art making is healing and life enhancing and is a potent form of communication. It uses the creative process which exists within each of us, to promote growth, self-expression, emotional repair, conflict resolution and transformation. Through art making as therapy you may find relief from overwhelming emotions, crises, or trauma: discover insights about yourself, achieve an increased sense of wellbeing; enrich your daily life; or experience personal change. It is a way to sense of that which is painful, to create personal meaning, to enhance wellness and to become whole.”

Q :: What are your favourite elements of this therapy and why did you get into it in the first place? 

A :: Creativity and artistic expression have always held such a sense of wonder to me. I like how art can be interpreted in a range of ways and each person’s work is so unique. Art therapy offers a fresh perspective on a person’s challenges and allows the voice of the individual to shine through. It can really help to highlight a person’s strengths. 

My approach is playful, warm and gentle. I have always connected well with children and enjoy the energy of teenagers. As a shy kid, art was a bit of a sanctuary for me, then as a teen I found art, journaling and music spoke to me in an deep and honest way and I have carried this interest into my career. 

I experienced counselling for the first time when I was in my late teens and whilst it was helpful, it was also daunting. I found it challenging and overwhelming to use words alone to describe the difficult experiences I’d had. After I left secondary school I went to art college, specialising in print making and textiles. Whilst living in London I heard about art therapy through a play therapist at the school where I was working as a specialist teaching assistant. I was running lunchtime art groups and the children who were often less engaged in lessons, or alone in the playground really flourished in this space. When I started exploring the profession I knew it was the right job for me and 10 years on I still love it. 

Q :: What are 2-3 examples of how an art therapy session with you could run? 

A :: I start with sensitive curiosity to find out as much as I can about what is happening for the child or teen. This can start with an intake meeting with the parent or can be a conversation on the phone. Sometimes it’s useful for me to talk to others involved with the child or teen to get a better idea of the child and how their challenges present in different settings. In session, I spend time discovering what brings your child joy and what makes your family unique. Then I introduce creative projects and games that can help to playfully challenge the things that aren’t working. 

Q :: What ages do you work with? 

A :: I specialise in art therapy with children, teens and families. Art making and play are natural ways to express, process and regulate emotions especially for children and teens. I have training in both art therapy and play therapy techniques such as sandplay and Theraplay as well as parent child dyadic art therapy which just means, working with the parent and child together with their ‘relationship’ acting as the client. In the art therapy space, adolescents can be free to use symbols, imagery and a range of art supplies to explore their emotions and developing thoughts about their identity. Art making can provide a visual outlet for their ideas when words are not easily expressed. 

Q :: What are some common symptoms/challenges you see presented with ASD kids?

A :: Art therapy with me may be right for families who have tried it all but nothing seems to be working, or for families who feel unsure about trying talk-based therapies.

The most common challenges parents contact me about are emotional outbursts, difficult behaviours or withdrawing. These might be signs that your child is facing a challenge that feels too big. Sometimes you know what’s causing the problem, but other times it can be a complete mystery. Often these feelings lead to feeling overwhelmed and asking them what’s wrong can lead to frustration and even more negative feelings. Art therapy doesn’t rely on verbal language and as such can feel less challenging for children and teens with ASD.

Q :: What benefits/results do you see with the different age groups and levels of ASD?

A :: Art therapy really is accessible to everyone. It can engage children of all abilities as the materials are enticing and the relationship is playful and supportive. Art therapy is a safe space for your child or teen to feel accepted, supported and encouraged. When things are really challenging, they need this more than ever. 

Q :: How do parents find a suitable Art Therapist in their area?

A :: A Registered Art Therapist is someone who has undertaken an approved training in Art Psychotherapy at post-graduate level, usually an MA. Art therapy is not yet a regulated profession here in Australia although there are strict requirements in the US, UK and Europe. ANZACATA is the professional association in Australia that sets the codes of practice and they have a Find A Therapist Directory on their website. Under the NDIS, Registered Art Therapists are allied health professionals and are available to support you or your child to achieve your personal goals. 

Q :: How can people find out about you if they live on the Sunny Coast and would like to chat to you about working with their family?

A :: I have a website with plenty of information about the services I offer.

Please check out www.sallycuthbert.com.au and I welcome enquiries from parents and service providers.

If you’re unsure about whether or not you can access art therapy through your child’s NDIS plan please contact me as I am probably able to help.

When we visited Sally’s studio Clint had a go at sandplay and really enjoyed it! And no surprises his ‘happy place’, the scene he created, including being on a boat in a river, fishing, and then hunting rabbits on land! haha

🎨 If this information encourages you to look into Art Therapy for your family, we wish you all the very best and truly hope it helps.

Clint + Aimee

Natural Fitness + Lifestyle Coaching | Visit our website: Primal Influence | Follow us on socials: Facebook + Instagram

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