Teaching Art To Children With Autism

What is Autism

Autism is defined by the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association 2000) as a neurological disorder characterized by qualitative impairment in social interaction and communication as well as the presence of “restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities” (American Psychiatric Association 2000, p.71). 

Integrating Art into Early Intervention Treatment

Early intervention is the most dynamic and critical period in the treatment of children with autism for one very simple reason: the younger they are, the more “elastic” their brains are.

Early intervention,” or “early childhood intervention,” refers to the time frame between when a child is first diagnosed (at birth, for some disorders; for ASD, usually between 18 to 36 months old) and when they enter school (about age five). A child need only be old enough to manipulate materials to begin working on drawing.

What it is about kids with autism that draws them to art

Art is an interesting crossroads for children with ASD because it is an activity in which strengths (visual learners, sensory interests) and deficits (imagination, need for sensory control) merge. They often desire art-making very much but then have a hard time engaging in it appro- priately

Traditional therapists often view art-making as either potentially regressive and perseverative, or at best as a good thing but with no clear therapeutic aim beyond technical skill-building. Despite this ambivalence they will still try to incorporate art into the child’s therapeutic activities. Everyone appears to agree that art is beneficial to these children yet few people can articulate why this is or how to best go about it.

Also, some art theorists believe that not only is art-making innate, but it satisfies an innate aesthetic need in children. Again, there is no reason to assume this doesn’t apply to kids with ASD as well; in fact, many demonstrate aesthetic preferences in their drawings.

Art as rehabilitation

Very simply put, rehabilitation is a type of therapy that trains or exercises parts of the brain (or body) that have been impaired by disease or injury. Early intervention therapies for children with autism are rehabilitative therapies, working to manipulate weak or atypical connections in the brain.

Autism is a pervasive “rewiring” of the brain, and creativity is also a complex, multi-lobe process. If the aim is to rehabilitate something as complicated as a child’s creativity and imagination, what activity first springs to mind? Probably, the arts. Drawing is already used regularly for assessment, so it makes sense that art could be easily adapted for use as a practical therapy speciality.


  1. The adult is not fixing a child’s artwork, but using art to “fix” parts of the child that can be best engaged using art.
  2. The art itself is not as important as gaining the self-discovery, experimentation, tactile tolerance, and so on that is required to make it.
  3. Skills such as imagination and creativity are worth rehabilitating in children with autism. 
  4. Less immediately practical training goals have sometimes to be neglected or put off until later unless the child shows an early interest or talent.
  5. You must believe that creativity can be learned by developing art-related skills such as experimentation and abstract thinking.

How to move past scribbling 

The most common goal related to art that is addressed by well-meaning early intervention therapists involves helping a child with autism move from drawing “nothing” to drawing “something,” that is, to move from scribbling into representational drawing.

If you are making art with children on the spectrum, it is important to be familiar with the major theories of childhood artistic development and use this knowledge as your basis for comparison, as opposed to com- paring the child’s work to adult standards.

Two of the most influential theories in this field were developed by art educators Viktor Lowenfeld (1987) and Rhoda Kellogg (1969), both working in the United States in California) at the same time (from the 1940s to 1970s). 

Viktor Lowenfeld

tor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld’s extensive theory (published under joint authorship with W. Lambert Brittain) parallels the psychological needs of the child with the child’s artistic growth from the toddler years to adulthood; his texts are still standards in the fields of both art education and art therapy. 

Lowenfeld described early childhood drawing as a progression from disorganized, random scribbling to more controlled scribbles, which the child will eventually begin to name, before entering the period of preschematic, conscious drawing with schemas/symbols that adults will recognize.

Rhoda Kellogg

Rhoda Kellogg was a careful observer who collected and classified hundreds of thousands of drawings made by children from around the world. A slightly lesser-known figure than Lowenfeld, Kellogg disagreed with the idea that scribbling is mainly a kinesthetic activity and believed that visual interest is essential.

She observed that children drew intuitively, without external models, according to their own, innate aesthetic sensibilities. Kellogg’s documentation of the transition from scribbling to preschematic work is very useful for understanding how to help a child move past scribbling, and illustrates the richness of this period.

Despite philosophical differences, both Kellogg and Lowenfeld agreed that scribbling is an important, innate, and exploratory activity influenced by the child’s motor ability and physical growth. When it comes to children on the spectrum (and all children for that matter), I would add sensory discomfort/distraction and unique aesthetic vision as additional influencing factors.  Of course any developmental theory, created with average children (neither autistic nor talented) in mind, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Look for healthy scribbling and encourage it

What is healthy scribbling? That which involves experimentation, flexibility, and variety. Train yourself to look for and identify scribbles of the kind that Kellogg recorded and keep the developmental path that she describes in mind as your goal. When you see healthy scribbles, reinforce the child’s good work.

Evaluate environmental conditions

Help the child focus by reducing extraneous sensory stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and/or by organizing the room to make expectations clear and maximize comfort. Provide the structure and predictability that children on the spectrum so often crave but change projects or work stations often enough to discourage too much rigidity. The goal should be for the child to eventually be able to make art in a natural environment, such as at home or school.

Provide visual supports

Children with autism are often highly visual and giving a little visual “nudge” can help a lot:

Visual starters (e.g., drawing a horizon line or a circle) prompt the child to “complete” the drawing, and are a bit like an artist making a big swipe across the canvas so that it is no longer blank and daunting.

Visual models can be anything the child references to help inspire drawing (a toy, a picture, a drawing by an adult).

Visual instructions can be in pictorial and/or written format and provide clear structure and expectations. Make sure that these are simplified as the child will probably be distracted by extraneous information in the images.

Modify tasks into manageable parts

If needed, break projects down into their smallest parts. For example, “draw a house” actually means draw two horizontal lines and two vertical lines (a box or square), then two lines that come to a point on top (making a triangle), and so on.

Provide physical, sensory support

Regulating their bodies usually improves the quality of their artwork considerably.If the child is using art materials in an inappropriate self-stimulatory way, provide them with a substitute (e.g., if chewing on a paintbrush, provide something appropriate to chew). Some scribblers will start off okay but then get carried away by the kinesthetic feeling of making the strokes. 

Providing gentle pressure on the wrist or shoulder, paired with a verbal or visual prompt to “slow down”,can help. Hand-over- hand prompting can be good practice but fade out the pressure of your own hand as soon as possible. This can be used more to educate the child on how their body should feel and move to complete the task, rather than as a way to do the task itself.

Don’t discourage independent work, no matter what

Amend, modify, or slow down perhaps, but never discourage a child’s independent artwork. Celebrate drawings, even if you know they are less than the child’s best, but give those best drawings an extra special reinforcement. 

Nurture and shape where the child is at, and do not give them things out of left field to copy. Topic ideas should come from the child as much as possible and from the adult as little as possible. Keep things neutral when the child’s work is less than their best.

Name and isolate scribbles

Not only is it fun but naming scribbles helps the child visually isolate one mark from the next, practice abstract thinking, and paves the way for preschematic drawing. Encourage the child to come up with personalized names for their basic scribbles (e.g., vertical lines are “rail- road tracks” or “tiger stripes,” dots are “popcorn,” “eyeballs,” “ants,” etc.). 

Other fun ways to help the child to distinguish between different marks/scribbles include pairing a mark/stroke with a sound, song, pic- ture, character, story, or any prompt. Divide up your page like a grid to keep the scribbles separate and clear.

Have fun

Someone once said, “play is a child’s work” but for a child with autism, appropriate play is hard work. Remember to be enthusiastic and keep things light, clown around, coach them on. Sing your instructions, give their “drawing hand” a tickle or warm-up massage, take breaks for necessary things like snack and potty break. 

Try to create a fluid relationship between demands and rewards (so that it all, as much as possible, seems like fun) and do not fight their perseverative or otherwise symptomatic artwork when it arises. Shape it through reinforcement and compromise with the child, but make it a point of tension or interest and the child is sure to keep doing it.

Help the child visually isolate and identify their many different kinds of scribbles. You are working to “tease out” one mark from the rest and help the child become a more organized and deliberate scribbler.

Express your faith and confidence in the child’s abilities

As young artists with autism gain more skill and control and progress toward preschematic drawing, they may become frustrated with their work. Ironically, as a child with ASD becomes more invested in art-making, he will sometimes hold himself to a higher standard of skill or detail than is age-appropriate (even as young as ages three to five). young artists with autism are often more self-critical than their neurotypical peers. 

Help the child make comparisons, when appropriate or helpful, between his work and that of his peers (and not adults) and help him to see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Build up the child’s self-confidence and help him develop a healthy attitude toward drawing. Do not let the child give up on a goal out of frustration; anything can be broken down into its smallest parts and learned.

Make art too

Don’t just help the child, make art too. Work side-by-side or together with the child; you are acting as a live model. Give children a turn in the driver’s seat; copy or imitate their best work to get their attention, praise them, and create a two-way flow of learning; even let them give you instructions. 

Make sure that you draw with them at their skill level or at the skill level you are working toward, rather than at an adult or professional level. This is most important if the child is young and/or learning how to draw. (A higher skill level often fascinates and frustrates a young artist with autism.) Demonstrate the age-appropriate process of discovery, exploration, and healthy scribbling for the child. (Therapists call this “modelling.”)

Maintain the gain

The strength of their symptoms can be rather cyclical, which means children with ASD can fluctuate a bit in their drawing level from week to week. Make sure that the child has truly mastered a particular drawing or scribble by practicing it and monitoring to see if the child can draw it independently across a span of at least three or four consecutive sessions (a behaviorist rule of thumb).

If all else fails, teach

If a child persists in scribbling past the age-appropriate period and you suspect that he or she can do better, then try direct teaching. Imitation drawing (“copying”) is generally a bad idea to present to children below the age of five. Neurotypical children of this age do not learn by copying and could care less about imitating models.

(Obviously, a child on the spectrum cares even less about this.) you want to create conditions that encourage drawings that originate from the child, but for those who do not respond to this, try teaching them basic scribbles and diagrams before teaching schemas (person, house, tree, etc.) in order to give the child a chance to arrive at schematic work on their own. Copying is popular because it is measurable and often “works,” but being able to copy is a poor indicator of creative growth.

Each child is different, so use these tips like interchangeable tools to pull out according to the situation and use at your discretion. Quick reinforcement and praise, improvisation, and enthusiasm are skills that will also come in very handy. As a keen observer and teacher, you will paradoxically be both leading and following the child at the same time. This is a useful balance to strike when making art with young children on the spectrum.


American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edn., text revision). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007, February 8) ‘CDC releases new data on autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) from multiple communities in the United States/ Available at www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2007/r070208.htm, accessed on December 17, 2008.

Charman, T. and Baron-Cohen, S. (1993) ‘Drawing development in autism: The intellectual to visual realism shift/ British journal of Developmental Psychology 11, 171-185.

Craig, J., Baron-Cohen, S., and Scott, F. (2001) ‘Drawing ability in autism: A window into the imagination/ IsraelJournal of Psychiatry 38, 242-253.

Henley, D. (1992) Exceptional Children, Exceptional Art: Teaching Art to Special Needs. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.”

Lowenfeld, V. and Brittain, W. L. (1987) Creative and Mental Growth (8th edn.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Excerpt From: Unknown Author. “Art As Intervention Tool On Autism.” Apple Books.

Rossol, M. (1994) The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide (2nd edn.). New York, NY: Allworth Press.”

Reference Material

This section provides additional references from the fields of art, art therapy, art education, ASD, psychology, and social services that are relevant to the topic of art and autism. Books, research articles, and websites are included. 

Anderson, F. (1992) Art for All the Children: Approaches to Art Therapy for Children with Disabilities. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Banks, S., Davis, P., Howard, V., and McLaughlin, T. (1993) ‘The effects of directed art activities on the behavior of young children with disabilities: A multi-element baseline analysis/ Art Therapy:Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 10, 4, 235—240.

Bentivegna, S., Schwartz, L., and Deschner, D. (1983) ‘Case study: The use of art with an autistic child in residential care/ AmericanJournal of Art Therapy 22, 51-56.

Betts, D. J. (2001) ‘Special report: The art of art therapy: Drawing individuals out in creative ways/ The Advocate: Magazine of the Autism Society of America 34, 3, 22—23 (29).

Betts, D. J. (2003) ‘Developing a projective drawing test: Experiences with the Face Stimulus Assessment (FSA)/ Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 20, 2, 7-82.

“entivegna, S., Schwartz, L., and Deschner, D. (1983) ‘Case study: The use of art with an autistic child in residential care/ AmericanJournal of Art Therapy 22, 51-56.

Betts, D. J. (2001) ‘Special report: The art of art therapy: Drawing individuals out in creative ways/ The Advocate: Magazine of the Autism Society of America 34, 3, 22—23 (29).

Betts, D. J. (2003) ‘Developing a projective drawing test: Experiences with the Face Stimulus Assessment (FSA)/ Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 20, 2, 7-82.

Emery, M. J. (2004) ‘Art therapy as an intervention for autism/ Art Therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 21, 143-147.

Fox, L. (1998) ‘Lost in Space: The Relevance of Art Therapy with Clients who have Autism or Autistic Features/ In M. Rees (ed.) Drawing on Difference: Art Therapy with People who have Learning Difficulties. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gabriels, R. (2003) ‘Art Therapy with Children who have Autism and Their Families.’ In C. Malchiodi (ed.) Handbook of Art Therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Henley, D. (1989) ‘Artistic Giftedness in the Multiply Handicapped.’ In H. Wadeson, ]. Durkin, and D. Perach (eds) Advances in Art Therapy. New York[…]”

Kiendi, C., Hooyenga, K., and Trenn, E. (1997) ‘Empowered to scribble.’ Art Therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 14, 37-43.

Kornreich, T. Z. and Schimmel, B. F. (1991) ‘The world is attacked by great big snowflakes: Art therapy with an autistic boy.’ AmericanJournal of Art Therapy 29, 7-84.

Noble, J. (2001) Art as an Instrument for Creating Social Reciprocity: Social Skills Group for Children with Autism.’ In S. Riley (ed.) Group Process Made Visible: Group Art Therapy. Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge.[]];'[+p

Pounsett, H., Parker, K., Hawtin, A. and Collins, S. (2006) ‘Examination of the changes that take place during an art therapy intervention.’ Inscape: InternationalJournal of Art Therapy 11, 2, 79-101.

Riley, S. (2004) ‘Multi-Family Group Art Therapy: Treating Families with a Disabled Family Member.’ In S. Riley (ed.) Integrative Approaches to Family Art Therapy (2 nd edn.). Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street.\

Roth, E. (2001) ‘Behavioral Art Therapy.’ In J. A. Rubin (ed.) Approaches to Art Therapy: Theory and Technique (2nd edn) Philadelphia, PA: Brunner-Routledge.

Scanlon, K. (1993) ‘Art therapy with autistic children.’ Pratt Institute Creative Arts Therapy Review, 14, 34-43.

Silver, R. A. (1989) Developing Cognitive and Creative Skills through[…]”

“*Anderson, F. (1978) Art for All the Children: A Creative Sourcebook for the Impaired Child. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Arts Access Australia: www.artsaccessaustralia.org

Davalos, S. (1999) Making Sense of Art: Sensory-Based Art Activities for Children with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Flowers, T. (1992) Reaching the Child with Autism through Art. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Keilman, J. (2001) Autism, Art, and Children: The Stories We Draw. Westport, CT: Bergin Sc Garvey.

Lancelle, M. and Lesada, J. (2006) Sundays with Matthew. A Young Boy with Autism and an Artist Share their Sketchbooks. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

National Arts and Disability Center: http://nadc.ucla.edu/ (They have a satellite program at UCLA’s Tarjan Center: http://tarjancenter.ucla.edu/whatwedo.cfm)

Pemberton, E. and Nelson, K. (1987) ‘Using interactive graphic challenges to foster young children’s drawing ability.’ Visual Arts Research 13, 2, 29-41.

Bayliss, S. (2004, October) ‘Showcasing “neurodiversity”: Artists with autism, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities are attracting mainstream attention.’ ARTnews, 103, 778.

Hall, E. (2004, March 4) ‘All kinds of ants: What Gregory Blackstock’s autism has to do with his art.’ The[…]”

“Karlins, N. F. (2004) ‘Is autistic artistic?’ artnet. Available at www.artnet.com/magazine/ features/karlins/karlinsl-21-05.asp, accessed on 21 December 2008.

Rexer, L. (2002) Jonathan Lerman: Drawings by an Artist with Autism. New York, NY: George Braziller.

Jessica Park’s website: www.jessicapark.com

Mark Rimland’s website: www.markrimland.com

Richard Wawro’s website: www.wawro.net

Donna Williams’ website: www.donnawilliams.net

Stephen Wiltshire’s website: www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk

The Wisconsin Medical Society (a center fueled by the scholarly work on savants by Darold Treffert) has a wonderful collection of online videos of people with art savant skills. A must see. www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org

*Does not discuss autism, but contains useful information or techniques.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autistic_artist http://www.neurodiversity.com/art_poetry.html

Autism Spectrum Disorder

For a much more complete and scientific definition of ASDs than my own, please visit any orall of these reputable websites, which were all accessed in December 2008. They will pointyou toward a wealth of printed materials.

Autism Research Institute, Defeat Autism Now (DAN): www.autism.com

Autism Society of America: www.autism-society.org”

“Autism Speaks (recently merged with Cure Autism Now) and the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE): www.autismspeaks.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov

National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nih.gov

www.autism-resources.com (An incredible warehouse of autism information. Don’t miss the bibliography section under “Autism FAQ/’)

www.autismtoday.com (Resources and information on autism.)

www.firstsigns.org (A non-profit organization dedicated to early detection and intervention.

Watch for research coming out of these universities:

University of California (Davis, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego)

University of Cambridge, UK University of Kansas (Lawrence)

University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)

Yale University University of Pittsburgh University of Washington

www.autismarts.com (Great resource on artists and information from around the world.)

Galleries and collections

The University of California at Davis MIND Institute art collection online: http://www. ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/news/images/mind/artists.html

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) showcases artwork by and about people with disabilities: http://vanderbilt.edu/site/services/disabilityser-vices/artsanddisabilities.aspx”

“Psychology,, counseling, special education, and social work

Charman, T. and Baron-Cohen, S. (1992) ‘Understanding drawings and beliefs: A further test of the metarepresentation theory of autism ! Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 33, 6, 1105-1112.

Cox, M. (1999) ‘Contrasting styles of drawing in gifted individuals with autism/ Autism 3, 4, 39-409.

Epp, K. (2008) Outcome-based evaluation of a social skills program using art therapy and group therapy for children on the autism spectrum/ Children O* Schools 30, 1, 2-36.

Osborne, J. (2003) ‘Art and the child with autism: Therapy or education?’ Early Child Development and Care 173, 411-423.

Pring, L. and Hermelin, B. (1993) ‘Bottle, tulip and wineglass: Semantic and structural picture processing by savant artists/ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 34, 8, 1365-1385.

Pring, L., Hermelin, B., and Heavey, L. (1995) ‘Savants, segments, art and autism/ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 36, 6, 1065-1076.