Art therapy is a popular approach to managing emotions, understanding inner worlds, and releasing tension for children and adults. It can sometimes be used as a complementary therapy to treat autistic children.

Art therapists need to be certified by a board and licensed in their state to practice therapy. While there is much anecdotal evidence of its success, there is currently little research on how well art therapy works for children with autism.

The leading treatment for autism is applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which has a long history of treating developmental conditions and mitigating maladaptive behaviors. Speech therapy and occupational therapy are other primary treatments for autism.

Art therapy is generally not considered a primary autism treatment, but it can benefit children with autism. Several studies have shown that art therapy appears to work well as a complementary treatment for autistic children.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a clinical practice designed to improve personal expression for a range of conditions. This approach is applied to people with various mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety. It helps these individuals to work out specific negative emotions and examine the psychological or emotional undertones in the artwork.

Through the guidance of an art therapist, who is licensed at the state level to practice therapy and is credentialed by a certification board, the client creates works of art. Then, the therapist may decode symbolism in the art, often with the client there to discuss the image. This can help the client resolve underlying feelings or struggles by understanding what lies in their subconscious.

Art therapy isn’t about the finished artwork. It’s about the process involved in creating something.

When looking for an art therapist, make sure the professional is certified and licensed to practice in your state. Your child may also receive art therapy alongside other interventions in places like:

  • A hospital or clinician’s office.
  • Their school.
  • A private practice.
  • A crisis center.
  • A community center.
  • A rehabilitation facility.

Can Art Therapy Help With Autism Symptoms?

This therapeutic practice can help to alleviate some symptoms of physical or developmental disabilities, although there is limited evidence of the effectiveness of this approach.

Since art therapy is not well studied, it is typically used as a complementary therapy alongside other evidence-based approaches. For example, an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist may provide art therapy as one way to achieve a therapeutic goal, but creating works of art with the child will not be the primary mode of treatment.

What to Expect in a Session

A basic art therapy session is conducted by a trained, credentialed art therapist. Typically, the first session will involve the therapist getting to know the client and identifying the goals for treatment.

Goals for autistic children may be to:

  • Better manage emotional outbursts.
  • Communicate more effectively.
  • Develop fine motor skills.

After the goals of treatment have been identified, you will then work with the art therapist to create a treatment plan. Parental feedback is essential to the overall treatment planning process. 

During the next sessions, the therapist will guide your child through creating art at their skill level. This might mean using paints, markers, clay, construction paper, and other art tools. The therapist will observe the work without judgment, although they may record what they see as the child creates. For example, if the child becomes frustrated or easily distracted, the therapist will find a way to guide the child back to the artwork or offer them another way to make art.

Older children may talk to the art therapist about memories or feelings associated with the art, while younger children or nonverbal children may not participate in this part of the process.

The artwork may also reflect something your child is fixated on. One sign of autism is an obsessive focus on specific interests, to the exclusion of learning other, more general information or socializing with neurotypical peers.

While parents may want to pull their children away from this obsessive interest, some studies show that cultivating this interest actually helps the child later in life. Art therapists will generally encourage the child to work on whatever interests them.  

What to Look for in an Art Therapist

Art therapists are certified by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). When searching for an art therapist, look for initials after the therapist’s name, which indicate their certification level. These are:

  • ATR, or registration with the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).
  • ATR-BC, or registration as an ATR plus passing the board-certified exam.

Depending on where you live, where your child receives art therapy, and how many sessions they attend per week, art therapy may cost a lot out of pocket. Insurance will not likely cover art therapy unless it is offered as part of a treatment like ABA therapy.

Contact your insurance provider directly to confirm your coverage specifics. If they do offer some level of coverage, confirm the therapist is in-network.

Best Practices

Although there are certifications and licenses for art therapists, there is not one specific approach to treating people with autism. One research team sought to develop best practices to help children with autism and suggested the following steps for art therapy sessions:

  • Begin the session with the same routine.
  • Explain instructions in a consistent way.
  • Transition cautiously and gently between activities.
  • Use art as a practice to spark excitement and interest in new skills.

The researchers also found some practices were not useful and even potentially harmful. These negative practices were:

  • Being overly directive.
  • Being too vague or loose with directions.
  • Using overstimulating art materials with extreme colors or textures.
  • Forcing restrictions with communication styles.

Since two of the detrimental practices are being too direct and being too vague, it’s important for art therapists to strike the right balance in how to communicate with each child.

These recommendations are in line with therapies like ABA treatment, which help children with autism develop skills in a goal-oriented, measurable way. Art therapy does not have these specific standards for autistic clients, so having an art therapist work alongside an ABA therapist is often beneficial.

The Science Behind Art Therapy for Children With Autism

Art therapy can potentially enhance functioning through creative practice and self-expression. While many clients find this to be true, art therapy does not have scientific backing as a long-term treatment plan for people with autism. Some research suggests that art therapy can be a valuable part of a treatment like ABA therapy, where it may be offered as a reward for behavioral improvements or as a way of developing some socializing or communication skills.

Since more parents are becoming interested in art therapy to support their children, a systemic review of medical literature reviewed data from 1985 to 2012, looking at high-intelligence autistic children (up to 18 years old) who participated in art therapy.

Art therapy seemed to help with flexibility, relaxation, and self-image. Children also seemed to improve their communication and learning skills. The survey reported that two areas of concern, communication and repetitive behaviors, were improved through various art therapy practices. However, the study did note that there was not enough evidence to support implementing art therapy as the main or only therapeutic tool for autistic children.

Another research team examined some studies on art therapy as an autism treatment. These researchers found that some aspects of treatment, like multisensory input from a range of art materials and various aspects of making art, could improve well-being and some motor function skills. The group also stated that there was not enough evidence to support this as a treatment, but the existing evidence could lead to further scientific studies later.

Getting Art Therapy for Your Child

If you think your child will benefit from art therapy, ask your ABA therapist or pediatrician about incorporating this therapy into the overall treatment plan.

Art therapy has no specific age limit and can work for anyone. It should not be used in place of evidence-based therapy or medical treatments, but it can be used in addition to these research-based therapies.

Simply making art outside of a therapy setting can also be beneficial for autistic children. Parents can make art creation part of daily life at home. This allows autistic children to have fun as they benefit from skill development.