Those of us who have ever had some type of counseling or psychotherapy know how beneficial it is to be able to talk with a professional about what’s going on in our lives and how we’re handling it (or not). Therapy is also helpful for discussing past events, especially traumatic ones, how they affected us, and how we can work through them. But what if talking is difficult for you? Or impossible? What if you don’t process events and emotions verbally? ASD people encounter just as much, if not more, stress and difficulty while trying to function in an NT world, and many of them have past issues they need to work through as well.
Enter art therapy for autism. When thoughts and feelings cannot be discussed verbally, art therapy works wonders. It helps to stimulate imagination, regulate sensory issues, encourage hand-eye coordination, and express emotions (including stress). Other long-term benefits include developmental growth, recreation, and self-expression. But there can even be profound benefits from just a single session of art therapy. I witnessed this last night with my autistic son.
Ten months ago, I removed Nigel from the middle school where he had been mainstreamed. He had endured daily bullying, both physical and verbal (and, of course, emotional). This put him in a constant state of anxiety and agitation, making him unable to focus and learn, unable even to function. Soon after removing him from that environment, he became much calmer and was able to focus while being homeschooled. On a weekly basis, even though months have gone by since he attended that school, he mentions how much bullying angers him or mentions something in general about bullies. I’ve always assured him that he wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore. But what I didn’t realize was that Nigel had not yet worked through the trauma of his ordeal. He couldn’t really talk about it, other than his occasional comments, and that wasn’t enough. The memories were still painful for him.
Then last night Nigel brought out his yearbook. He showed my boyfriend a picture of a girl he liked, and my boyfriend joked about how he used to draw moustaches on yearbook photos. Nigel laughed and went back to his room. He came out an hour or so later with a Calvin and Hobbes book and showed us a series of cartoons about Calvin’s bully, Moe. In one cartoon, Calvin mimics an ape as he quietly walks behind Moe. Nigel couldn’t stop laughing at the cartoon. He went back to his room and came out a few minutes later with his yearbook, showing us how he had used a ballpoint pen to make the face of his worst bully into an ape face. He laughed some more and went back to his room, where he proceeded to laugh non-stop for over an hour. Finally, his laughter subsided, and I went to him to suggest that he get some sleep. He proudly showed me his yearbook. Each page of every grade level had several ape faces drawn over the bullies, both boys and girls, who had tormented him. I fought back tears and didn’t want to count how many faces he had drawn on; there were many. I couldn’t bear to think of how horrible it really had been for my son, day after day. I’ve always known that the decision to homeschool him was the right one, but now I had validation. And it sickened and angered me.
But Nigel had found a way to work through his anger. He devised his own art therapy. He scribbled out his anger while eliminating the bullies’ facial features, and then he laughed while adding humiliating details like hairy necks and stupid grins. And he felt better. As I said good night to him, he told me, “Now I can sleep without thinking about the bullies.”
I’ll try to do the same.