The Sensory Bounce Therapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

The Game Plan: Strengthening Sensory Skills

Because the best results happen when therapy is fun!

Part 4 of 5: Art therapy

hand_child_painting w brush for web
State of the art therapy
Art therapy for children uses the processes of drawing, painting, and sculpting to help address emotional issues; develop social skills; regulate behavior; reduce stress; and increase confidence. 
Many sensory children have difficulty identifying their emotions and then communicating them verbally. Art therapy gives them a relaxed, nonverbal approach to express emotions, especially anxiety, depression, frustration, or anger, as well as improve social skills. And the process of producing the art, something tangible, builds self-esteem and can help children feel in control. Finally, of course, the process of making art improves their sensory motor skills.
What is art therapy?
According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy combines theories of human development and psychology with visual arts to help people improve their psychological health, cognitive abilities, and sensory-motor functions. It combines talk therapy (verbal expression) with the creative process (nonverbal expression), for better overall results.
The American Art Therapy Association’s (concise) definition of art therapy:
“Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.

Art therapy, facilitated by a professional art therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

How does it work?
Art therapy enables a child to explore through physical activity and sensory integration. 
Experiences that involve touch, movement, visuals, and sound, such as working with clay, improves motor skills, releases tension, generates a relaxation response and improves a child’s mood. In general, creative activity increases levels of serotonin in the brain (low levels are associated with depression). That’s why shaping clay into a ball yourself for just five minutes can reduce stress hormones more than squeezing a stress ball for the same amount of time
If the therapist asks a child to draw a picture of yesterday’s trip to the park, different parts of the brain are engaged during the process. Painting with a brush on canvas requires motor skills. Drawing a picture of the specific memory requires analytic and sequential operations, logic, and abstraction. It’s problem solving and decision making, which stimulates neuropathways in the brain. Overall, working through the sequence of steps needed to complete the task requires attention skills and working memory.
Focus on the process
How can you reinforce art therapy at home? 
The most important thing to remember is to focus on the process, not the final product. Your goal is not for your child to produce a perfect museum quality piece. Your goal is for him or her to gain from making the art, to focus on how it feels to paint, to draw, to sculpt, to build.
Don’t set the bar too high or direct your child; follow his direction. He may enjoy the sensory experience of kneading the clay into lumps, rather than forming it into a vase. She may prefer scribbling over an entire page in different colors rather than drawing a rainbow. 
Also, your child may not be able to produce something similar to what her typically-developing school friends are making, and if she thinks that’s what you expect, you’re putting pressure on her — and that’s the opposite of encouragement. 
Draw them out about their drawings
If you observe what your child produces, and ask her simple, leading questions, like “What would you call your creation?” or “What’s happening in your picture?” you are allowing her to express her feelings and you are validating that what she is producing is worthy. You’re also opening up the opportunity for her to discuss the emotions that prompted the picture, and you can help her work through them if they are feelings of sadness, frustration, etc.
You don’t need the 64-pack
Don’t overwhelm your child with too many choices of art materials; it may overwhelm him. Maybe choosing from the whole pack of markers is too much; if so, you may want to put down only two or three on the table and let him know he can ask for more if he wants them. Once he’s comfortable with two or three, you can slowly add markers to the table.
The big picture (for small people)
Art therapy uses the processes of drawing, painting, and sculpting to help children improve sensory motor skills; address emotional problems; develop interpersonal skills; manage behavior; reduce stress; and increase self-awareness. 
Looking ahead:
In the next post, we will discuss music therapy and how to assimilate it into your child’s daily life.

How does your child experience art? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.