Using Art and Creativity to Engage an Autistic Child in the Classroom
by Claire Draycot
Educating autistic children can seem like a challenge. Indeed, it is often hard enough to educate children without ASD, but to engage and maintain the attention of a child with autism when trying to teach them about something in which they have no interest can seem, at times, nigh on impossible. Kids with ASD may require very specialized teaching methods in order to combat sensory issues, difficulties in focusing on things which have no real interest for them, communication problems, and possibly attention deficiency. These problems may lead many to believe that the child is stupid or unskilled, and a lack of socially interactive skills on the part of the autistic child does nothing to help this illusion. The perception is that children who cannot get along with school cannot get along in the real world. As everyone who has witnessed the wonderful work of The Art of Autism know, this perception is entirely unfair. Autistic children are not unskilled – it is merely that their skills manifest in different ways to those of other children, and they are often not easily induced to demonstrate them. This can be frustrating for parents who want to ensure that their child gets the best possible education and best possible start in life. However, a little patience, understanding, and creativity when it comes to education can work wonders. The use of art as a teaching tool can have unparalleled effects in opening up an avenue of communication between student and teacher, and in engaging the interest of the pupil.
Physical and emotional benefits
Art lessons have benefits both practical and emotional. Some young autistic children may struggle with their fine motor skills, for which the simple act of guiding crayons over paper can render a huge improvement. However, as well as honing their motor skills, making drawings allows autistic children to communicate thoughts and feelings they may otherwise struggle to express. Viewing a child’s drawing opens a window into interests, preoccupations and emotions which may go unregarded in a child with ASD, who does not communicate these things in a conventional manner. This can provide the teacher with a greater understanding of the child, which is of enormous benefit when it comes to teaching them.
Adaptation and control
Many autistic children struggle in conventional classrooms because the methods utilized do not suit their own particular way of doing things. The idea of adapting their personal methods can be upsetting. Art gives them a degree of control over their learning experience which many greatly appreciate. A child shown a map and told the names of the countries on it may become bored or frustrated, let their attention wander, or simply refuse to participate in the lesson. A child asked to draw their own map, and make it as accurate as possible, immediately has much more control over their learning experience. They are more likely to become engaged in the task, actively seeking out the information they need on their own terms. Crucially, they are able to conduct themselves in a manner which they prefer while at the same time taking in essential information. Furthermore, the tangible end of a drawing assignment provides a sense of focus which may be lacking in other lesson formats – the ultimate end of gaining knowledge being nebulous and non-immediate.
Visual aids are often very useful for those teaching austistic children. Those who provide resources for the teaching of autistic children recommend the use of visual aids to help clarify concepts which may be confusing for someone with ASD. Autistic children are less likely than other children to meekly accept the word of their teacher when the reasoning behind an action or concept seems incomprehensible. Visual aids help to illustrate these concepts, making them seem instantly much more reasonable. This principle can be carried through into the classroom as well. TEACCH – a specialized system of teaching autistic pupils – recommend the use of a highly visually defined teaching area to help children get into a ‘learning’ mindset, and to make it perfectly clear that one cannot act in this space as one would act at home. Many autistic children appreciate clear boundaries and definitions, and there is no more effective way of defining a boundary than through clear visual markers.
People with ASD can respond in surprising ways to creative teaching methods. Music, in particular, has been found to elicit amazing responses from children with ASD. Many autistic children respond far more enthusiastically to a lesson framed musically or rhythmically than they would to a more conventional lesson. Some ASD children like the patterns and rhythms of music or chants, and these can benefit from, for example, math lessons phrased in rhyme, or chanted. Others like the opportunity music gives for them to engage with others through clearly defined parameters. Making music or singing a song with the rest of the class gives the autistic child a part to play which is predictable and easy to complete yet simultaneously creative, expressive, and inclusive. Making them feel included is one of the greatest ways a teacher can ensure that the mind of an autistic pupil is ‘in the moment’, so to speak, that their attention is on the lesson and, crucially, that they are enjoying the lesson. See the Art of Autism story on the importance of music by Jacqui Callis.
Learning through personal expression
Creative methods of teaching can thus provide an unparalleled way of communicating and engaging with autistic pupils. Framing lessons which may otherwise seem dull or pointless within a creative context lends a sense of focus to a lesson, and gives the child a measure of control over their learning experience which helps to ease frustrations and make their education more enjoyable. This will allow them to develop their skills, and to demonstrate to their peers that, although they may not engage with lessons in quite the same way as others, they are in no way intellectually deficient!