ART AS AN EARLY INTERVENTION TOOL FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM

Reviewed by Liam Plant

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‘Only through art can we get outside ourselves and know another’s view of the universe which is not the same as ours and see the landscapes which would
otherwise have remained unknown to us like the landscapes of the moon.’ This
quote, from this book’s flyleaf, gets to the core issues which Nicole Martin addresses: how art might be used to engage with the inner worlds of children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The title of this book is significant, and it is very specific—‘art as ‘an early intervention tool’. Martin is an interventionist art therapist; she is influenced by behavioural and developmental psychology and her use of art in this context is intended to have a direct remedial function. She makes a very good point in relation to children not being referred to art therapy because they are perceived to have little art ability or interest (a point not often articulated by art therapists):

‘Yet when a child is referred to speech therapy, for example, it is not because the child presents outstanding verbal skill, but because of a deficit. The use of therapeutic art tasks must be thought of in the same manner. Art-making is the modality or tool through which we tackle relevant deficit areas (imagination/abstract thinking, sensory regulation/ integration, emotions/ self expression, artistic and fine motor developmental growth, visual.spatial skills and recreation/ leisure skills)’ (p.99).

The author sets out the three principal areas of deficit for people with ASD: ‘the triad of impairment—socialisation, communication and imagination’, and she devises specific interventions using the art process to address these issues, particularly the imagination deficit. It is her purpose to show just how those working with such children can utilise art.making to address these deficits.

Martin uses clear, accessible language to inform the reader of the various forms and manifestations of ASD. She describes the likely prevalent behaviours, the function of such behaviours, and how best to work with and around them—rather than against them.

Her warm openness about having a brother with ASD make this book more personally engaging than the usual ‘how to’ manual. She is clear about how this relationship has influenced and guided her. The experience would appear to have helped her in combining a sensitive empathy with a clear.sighted practicality. She says to the therapist, parent or carer, ‘Let yourself love them … I do believe that love is a factor that can positively impact a child’s prognosis (and their art skills)’ (p.106).

This ability to relate to the child helps her to be acutely aware of the particular needs and sensitivities of the particular child. Two children with ASD might require opposite forms of intervention, such as either low or high stimulating environments. Martin emphasises that one’s approach to working with these children must be tailored to the individual needs of the child. She takes great care in ensuring that her interventions, including careful organising of the environment, is appropriate to the particular needs of the child she is working with. Martin describes in clear detail just what we need to bear in mind when we are working with children ‘on the spectrum’.

An aspect of art therapy that many therapists working in this field will recognise is how the practical nature of the activity can ease the relationship: ‘… the three-part relationship between child, the art and the therapist allows art to act as what art therapist David Henley (1992) calls a “buffering agent” to soften and facilitate the interaction between client and therapist. For kids on the spectrum I like to call it a concrete conduit. Also, current studies suggest that children on the spectrum have an easier time processing objects than faces … so in theory the art object may be more useful than the adult’s words. The artwork functions as a product that a child can refer to over time as a way to remember and strengthen learning’(p.74).

This book is packed with practical tips and examples of appropriate ways to work with these children; it is a well thought out and well presented—with the parent as well as therapist or carer in mind, and the author’s commitment and enthusiasm is very apparent. This book would be helpful and encouraging to anyone involved with children with ASD.

ART AS AN EARLY INTERVENTION TOOL FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM, by Nicole Martin. 2009. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Paperback. ISBN 978 1 84905 807 0

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