Consider the power of a paintbrush: the soothing touch of textures, the creative outlet of color. More and more, that paintbrush is helping children cope with the emotional and behavior problems that come with their special needs, particularly those with autism, Asperger's and ADHD.
"With autism, it's about making a connection," Alyssa Kulak-Harris, executive director of Brickton Art Center, says about art therapy. With artwork based on each child's abilities, the goal is to help children feel a sense of accomplishment with their art.
"Nothing is open-ended and art projects have a definite beginning, middle and end," she says. Projects may include stringing beads on pipe cleaners and adding Styrofoam shapes to make free-form sculptures or putting glue on paper, sprinkling it with salt and allowing the child to manipulate the materials so watercolors dissolve into an explosion of color.
For those with Asperger's, Kulak-Harris has had much success helping them create comic strips about their struggles. Especially effective with bullying issues, she says these comics are used to start a conversation and become powerful vehicles of self-expression.
Ember Burke of Park Ridge credits art therapy with helping her 6-year-old son, Brendan, who has a rare chromosome abnormality that causes severe cognitive delays, limited language and seizures. He has participated in art therapy through Brickton at Have Dreams in Park Ridge the past three years.
Through art therapy, Burke says she has seen Brendan connect better with others. He talks, socializes and takes part in pretend play more often now, she says.
Lesley Hawley, clinical director of Children's Home + Aid Rice Child and Family Center in Evanston, says art therapy also offers benefits to those with ADHD, behavioral and mental health issues.
"Children who have ADHD have a lack of detail, get distracted and lose their interest," Hawley says. "They get frustrated and are unable to follow through when things get difficult." Hawley has seen structured art therapy calm them so they can finish their projects.
Hawley likes to use an "inventor" project to help children with ADHD. She gives them an object they must use to create their perfect invention.
Structured art therapy has long been used to help children who have experienced extreme trauma, abuse and neglect.
Lucy Latourette is a freelance writer and mother of two.