June Naukeras, CEI Intern
Disability and chronic illness often trigger complex emotional responses that are difficult to resolve through traditional talk-based psychotherapy. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a chronic condition in its own right, can be equally upsetting and silencing; children who have been traumatized rarely have the context or vocabulary to talk through their traumas. Art-making, particularly in an art therapy context, can give children a comfortable, non-verbal alternative or supplement to talk therapy.
The relative success of pediatric art therapy may stem from its roots in natural childhood responses to trauma: many children who have been traumatized will independently choose to self-soothe by making art that represents or recreates the traumatic event (Morrison, 2017). As Morrison explains, ‘It is often seen as a way for children to reframe and integrate the traumatic experience as a way to help them cope with the traumatic event.’ (p. ii). The distinction between recreational art-making and art therapy lies in the presence of an art therapist who provides the young artist with supplies, helps him or her discuss the subject of his/her work, and defuses the situation if the client becomes upset or overwhelmed. Researchers have found that compared to a control group, 7-to-14-year old asthmatic children who participated in art therapy reported a more positive self-concept as well as reduced anger, depression, and anxiety (Beebe, Gelfand, & Bender, 2010). Another study suggests that drawing and painting can help young cancer patients (ages 7 to 18 years) cope with the pain and stress they experience on a daily basis (Rollins, 2005).
My own experience with pediatric art therapy comes from both sides of the patient/provider boundary. Starting at age 16, I gradually lost visual acuity and peripheral vision in both eyes. This experience has impacted my emotional state as well as my day-to-day functioning; I am intimately acquainted with the trauma and anxiety of a serious chronic condition. Ceramics and painting, when experienced through a lens of art therapy, taught me my strengths and limitations without putting me in dangerous or overly stressful situations. At 22, I am no longer able to read from a sheet of paper or go out alone at night, but I am much better at coping than I was as a 16-year-old. Working with an art therapist allows me to process my vision loss emotionally and adapt at the same time to the new physical realities of my sensory world.
At a Children’s Hospital
At the children’s hospital where I volunteer, many of the patients come to the art therapy sessions directly before or after prosthetic fittings and major surgeries. I can’t assume that every child will be able to walk to the rec room or hold a paintbrush in his or her hand. Some patients will, like me, need to work around partial or total loss of one or more senses. Nevertheless, the recreation, art, and music therapists who work in the inpatient wing are able to set up accessible, engaging activities by starting with a simple central concept and adapting to individual patients as necessary. Patients already know the accommodations they need and work with us to find space for them in the activity:
- A boy without hands is well-prepared by his life so far to hold a paintbrush in his feet.
- A child who is deaf will happily participate in a writing workshop if even one other person in the room speaks sign language.
Navigating life while disabled or chronically ill requires a certain amount of creative thinking and false bravado. Accessible art-making allows people with disabilities to turn those coping mechanisms into real confidence in our own brains and bodies.
If you teach in a general education classroom, your students will probably be mostly neurotypical and able-bodied. In these circumstances, it’s easy to assume that most students can complete an art or writing activity; it’s hard to account for all the ways that disability can bar someone from participating. Many students with greater limitations may have sensory or motor restrictions that could impede their participation. However, these students, like others, want to write, they want to make art, and they want to play music. Many will reap extraordinary benefits from these activities if given the chance and the support. They already know that you can help them participate. So consider your options, find the resources that are needed, and further their options as well.
Beebe, A., Gelfand, E. W., & Bender, B. (2010, August). A randomized trial to test the effectiveness of art therapy for children with asthma. J Allergy Clinical Immunology, 126, 2, 263-6.
Morrison, A. (2017). The Benefits of Art Therapy with Children Affected by Acute Trauma (Unpublished master’s thesis). Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada: Thompson Rivers University.
Rollins, J. A. (2005, July 1). Tell me about It: Drawing as a communication tool for children With cancer. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing,22, 4, 203-221